Saturday, May 31, 2014

Pedantry is hardly a secret vice

     Most people who offer corrections are themselves wrong.
     I should probably say "many" instead of "most"—I'm not keeping count. I didn't do a survey. It just feels like "most."
     I will say, from long experience, that the more arrogance a person displays when offering up his supposed correction, the greater the odds that the corrector is the one who is mistaken.
    For instance.
    End of a long week. Wrote two columns — Monday's, on Harry Caray's hidden diaries, and a Voices blog post on the anniversary of Bobby Cann, a cyclist killed by a car. Rode the Divvy to Clybourn to look at the spot. Didn't have to, but I wanted to take a picture of the Ghost Bike, and lay eyes on the scene, again.
     Three, now that I think of it, if you count this one.
     Not to mention hearing, still, from those unhappy about Wednesday's Hot Doug's column. 
     So it's 4 p.m., tidying up. Check the mail. Oh look, a letter. 
     Minimal return address: "MBG—Chicago, IL 60610.
     Inside, two photocopied pages, from my latest book, You Were Never in Chicago.
     Underlined in blue pen—very straight, must have used a ruler—is this passage, about the Medill School of Journalism:
      Misspelling a name in an assignment drew an automatic F, no matter how good the rest of the article might be ... One error is too many.
     In the margin, handwriting:
     Fact checking should also mean an automatic F. See the following page. Your researchers should have been more careful/thorough.
     My researchers? Ah, hahaha....
     It is signed: "Sincerely — A degreed librarian and former Chicago History Museum employee."
     On the next page, I quote Hemingway writing about Chicago in a letter "while living at 1230 N. State." Which our nameless librarian has also underlined. In the margin he, or I suppose, possibly, she, writes: "1239 North Dearborn-- the building has a plaque."
     Oh ho, the building has a plaque. Well, that settles it, doesn't it? A plaque; can't argue with a plaque.
     This is an example of what I call the "Two Definitions Problem." Words often have more than one meaning. If I say I caught three carp and put them in my creel, and you write in that I am an obvious illiterate, because a "carp" is a complaint" and a "creel" is a rack for holding bobbins in sewing, it is you, and not I, who are making a mistake, because "carp" and "creel" have two definitions. The former can be a fish as well as a gripe and the latter, according to my New Oxford American Dictionary, is either: 1) "a large wicker basket for carrying fish" and 2) a rack holding bobbins or spools for spinning."
    Why is this common? People are familiar with one definition, they generally hold other people in contempt, and it never occurs to them that the second definition might be lurking there. They never imagine a person might be thinking differently than themselves.
    Hemingway did indeed live at 1239 N. Dearborn, just as the plaque says. He lived there in the fall of 1921, after marrying Hadley Richardson and returning from their honeymoon.
    Before that, in 1920, Hemingway lived on the third floor of 1230 N. State, with a friend. There is no plaque because the address was absorbed into an apartment building. Hemingway lived in two different places in Chicago — mind-blowing, I know. Actually, that isn't true either; he also lived at 63 E. Division, and might have lived elsewhere, but I'll draw the veil here.
    You get my point.
    Since there is no return address, I can't hope to inform MBG directly. Though if you work at the Chicago History Museum, and know of a former employee, a degreed librarian — my guess you'll recognize who it is instantly, because a person like that, well, pedantry is hardly a secret vice, is it? — of those initials, you might want to pass this along, with a sorrowful note that he might want to spend his retirement doing other things than sending starchy anonymous notes to writers who have not committed an error.
    No reader has found a factual error in You Were Never in Chicago. I worked very hard, along with University of Chicago Press manuscript editor Carol Saller and the great Bill Savage, the book's editor, to try to make that happen. I'm proud of that. The closest anyone came to finding a blunder is that I use "el" instead of "L" — the CTA's term. But that wasn't a mistake, it was a choice. I find "L" inelegant, and figured, if "el" is good enough for Nelson Algren, it's good enough for me.
     Which does not mean the book is without error. Chew on that dilemma a moment. No reader pointed out an error, but an error is there. The answer is, there is an error, but one that I found myself. Because I care about these things. Don't know how it happened, but it's there. embarrassing enough that I'm keeping it to myself. I'll fix it in the 5th edition, if there is one. That's a great advantage of the online world. You can fix typos and mistakes. And why false accusations like this burn, because they assume a carelessness about the one thing I'm most careful about. I can tell you every typo in every book that I've ever written. I used "coronet" when I meant "cornet" in 1994 in Complete and Utter Failure. And that was fixed before the book went to press. Still, it almost got in.
    So the issue isn't reprimanding MBG, per se. Given the limited audience of this blog, I can't expect it will get back to him. Or her. But even airing the matter is a form of satisfaction, though I like to think, if it were only semi-settling a score with a faceless critic, I wouldn't do it. There is a message here. We are hot to find fault in others. I know I am. It's good to try to hold the dogs back, to survey the landscape before letting go the leash of correction. When somebody takes issue with what I wrote, they almost never consider that I wrote what I did deliberately, that I knew I'd get grief but wrote it anyway, and accept the grief as the price you pay for saying something worthwhile. I take strong positions, but do so with humility, or try to. Humility, the ability to question yourself, is important, because to write is to err. But if you are going to be so bold as to try to point out errors in others, try to do so politely, since you might be the one in the wrong, if not now, then eventually. You might be just as wrong as MBG was; utterly wrong, suffering from the myopia and laziness he falsely finds in others, and smug about it too, which makes it that much worse. I can't hope he — or she — will know of this tendency. But I'll bet MGB's friends are already painfully aware of it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

No pipe dream: school pays students

     Notre Dame accepted 22 percent of those who applied last year. Northwestern University, more exclusive, accepted just 13.9 percent. 
     For the Pipe Fitters’ Training Center, run by Local Union 597, the acceptance figure is 10 percent.
     Naturally, people want in. For those so inclined, it’s a sweet deal. Unlike Notre Dame, Northwestern, et al, you do not pay the school to learn. Au contraire. They pay you: $18.40 an hour, out of the box, your first year of apprenticeship, rising to $29.90 an hour by your third year. At graduation you are earning an even $46 an hour. There is a big catch, however, one that we will get to later.
     I learned this tramping through the pipe fitters’ enormous 200,000-square-foot center in Mokena this week, perhaps the cleanest industrial facility I have ever been to outside of a flat-bed scanner plant in Taiwan where we first had to don white paper suits and hold our arms out in a special chamber while the dust was blown off our bodies.
      I went for two reasons: a) they invited me and b) I’m curious about this sort of thing, about infrastructure, pipe and conduits, the silent support system that makes our world run. Unlike nature, which does its own installation and maintenance, the manufactured world doesn’t work unless somebody knows how to install it and repair it.
     My education began from a low baseline. I picture a thousand guys on their breaks pausing, coffee cup halfway to lips, to shake their heads in disgust while reading this next part: I learned only last Tuesday that pipe fitters are not plumbers. Plumbers are the lords of low pressure: drains and sewers and potable water gurgling easily through tub faucets. Pipe fitters work under pressure, literally, repairing chilled water lines in refrigeration units, installing gas systems in hospitals, maintaining boilers — anything that involves pipes that carry pressurized fluid or gases, or liquids that are hot or cold. Pipe fitting is really a subspecialty of welding, and apprentices produce carefully welded pipes the way students write term papers. A weld can even take longer to do than a report: A 16-inch pipe can require two days to execute properly. The Mokena center has a hospital grade X-ray machine whose only purpose is to check student welds. Students practice in 114 red-curtained welding booths.
     The center was built in 2005 and has a few touches not found elsewhere. The boiler room, for instance, rather than being hidden like most, is behind a spotless glass wall and as clean as a case at Tiffany's.
     My host was Local 597's business manager, Jim Buchanan — "business manager" seems a modest title for a man who manages the local's $2.7 billion pension fund. A 1965 graduate of Fenger High, his description of the challenges he faced as a young man echo a problem facing the union.
     "I didn't know anybody in this industry," he said. "No brother. No uncle. No nothin'."
     Which is how you got—and to a degree still get—into these trades: clouted in by a relative or a friend. Which did not—and to a degree still does not—make for a diverse workforce. Of the 700 apprentices here, about a dozen, or 2 percent, are women, a figure the Labor Department is constantly pushing to get higher. "They're always telling us they want more women," said Kevin Lakomiak, the apprentice coordinator.
     The pipe fitters report that 16 percent of their apprentices are minorities, though none were in evidence the day I visited, and the local has been the subject of a class-action lawsuit that says even minorities who join the union have trouble getting work. And that's the catch. Even if you are a member, you still have to get connected to jobs. Plus there is the factor that their training center is located in Mokena, which is 1 percent black and a solid hour from Chicago. The intention in moving there might not have been to keep minorities out. But that is the result.
     Applications are taken at the center in person on the first Wednesday of the month.
     "We get to see what we're dealing with," said Adam Sutter, the new admissions director working to drum up the next generation of pipe fitters. Applicants take a test and need a score of 71 to be considered.
     "Those that make the effort have a great career," said Buchanan, who is proud of his local's improvements. "We have made some great strides," he said, pointing out that three of 20 full-time instructors are African-American. "Very, very competent people," he said. "Is there room to improve? Yes."
     I cast an envious eye toward their setup. Self-insured, they try to keep members healthy. A 91 percent-funded pension. Must be nice.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

On fat people

From "Four Books on Human Proportion," by Albrecht Durer, Morgan Library. 
    When I wrote yesterday's column about waiting four hours in line at the revered Chicago sausage stand Hot Doug's, I faced a quandary. The most arresting thing I saw in that time was a 250-pound woman directly in front of me. She grew tired of standing and, along with her equally zaftig friend, sat on the sidewalk. When the line moved, rather than take the effort of standing up again, her friend sort of scootched her butt forward while she crawled on her knees. It was unsettling enough to be among a throng of hundreds waiting for hours to buy expensive albeit well-wrought fast food. To see these woman wriggling  toward the door demanded to be remarked upon. It came out like this:
      Two quite hefty women in front of us tire of standing and sit. But the line keeps moving so, not wanting to stand up, one scoots. The other crawls, on her knees, on the sidewalk. I almost suggest that instead of loading up on duck fat fries they consider checking themselves into a hospital. But that seems, oh, hostile. 
     I've been doing this writing thing long enough to know when I've sailed into fraught waters. I wanted to use the f-word to describe the women. But "fat" is so harsh; "hefty" seemed kinder while still conveying what needed to be conveyed.
     Still, I was not surprised when my editor came into the office. 
     "You know you're going to hear that this is fat shaming?" she sighed. I said that I did, and made my case. If I were drawing attention to a person's physique vis a vis nothing, I would agree that it was objectionable. Or if I were making some kind of general comment about overweight people. But we were in line to buy deeply fattening food, and these particular women, too out-of-shape to stand for long periods, were crawling. An awful image, really, and I was merely describing what I saw before my eyes and what I thought about it. Yes, I did include my unkind thought, but also both pointed out that I didn't actually say it—that would be cruel—and labeled the thought as "hostile." Kindness is nice, but not mandatory, not all the time.  Life isn't kindergarten. 
     We talked a bit. She decided it could go in. I was glad. While you don't want to offend people gratuitously, you also don't want your goal to become minimizing complaint for its own sake. Too many writers do that already. It's a recipe for toothlessness. 
     Another editor, on the copy desk, flagged the passage, and it was talked about some more. (Geez, we're starting to sound like the Tribune). The paragraph stayed and, to be honest, reaction was minimal. Far fewer comments than when I suggested earlier in the spring that being a prostitute is a degraded way to make a living. A handful of people—three, maybe four—commented on Twitter. One did mention the buzz phrase "fat shaming" and another called the piece "unkind" and "boring," a column of "hate." A few echoed her.
    So no harm, no foul. "Boring" stung, but then, turnabout is fair play. Still, I was left brooding about the whole issue of fat acceptance. Was I singling out people and focusing on their differences, hurtfully? Did it matter that these were women? Somehow it seemed to; perhaps because women are more vulnerable on this issue. Men just don't seem to care as much.  Still, it focusing on an attribute that might otherwise be ignored. Would I point out a gay man, oh, fussing stereotypically over a toy poodle? Is judging people by their weight bigotry or mere aesthetics? Or passing fashion? Fat people were considered elegant in the 19th century and desirable previously--such as the drawings above, done by Albrecht Durer in the early 1500s, trying to assemble the ideal woman out of various body parts. In times of scarcity, flesh showed that you had wealth, that you were healthy, fertile. 
     Over the past 50 years, however, the general streamlining and athleticism of modern life has served up a far more svelte ideal, and while there have been bold attempts to change
that—the Dove soap ads featuring "real size women" come to mind—Durer's perfect woman is not going to show up on the cover of Vogue anytime soon, though some percentage of people no doubt prefer it.
     I could see the argument that fat people are just further down the ladder of acceptance that gays are steadily climbing. Gays were once easily mocked and marginalized, fat people still are. But just as gays pushed and gained their proper place, so fat folk will too, one happy day, particularly as more and more Americans become overweight. Obesity could be considered a blend of genes and lifestyle not so different from sexual orientation, drawing attention to it no different than mocking somebody's lisp. 
     I can also see the counter argument, that while being black or being gay do not detract from your ability to, oh, be a postal carrier or a fire fighter, being 500 pounds certainly might. There is a difference. People are allowed to form moral judgments, and if I see a 350- pound man I am permitted to wonder what he was thinking when he reached 300.  Fatness is seen as less acceptable a criticism because it is so general—if I mentioned that somebody has liver lips, I would not hear from the League of Liver Lipped Persons. But there are an awful lot of fat people.
     Are we allowed to describe how people look? Or it is akin to suggesting somebody in a wheelchair can't be a store clerk? Is it intruding on a person's private space with unwelcome judgments and condemnations? Does it matter if the person is unidentified?
     The issue seems squarely on the back burner. Maybe for that very reason--because, for most people, it is something personal, not public. They live with themselves and form their own accommodations. The spectrum of what people find attractive is so broad that it hardly matters what the general demands of fashion are. Most people, fat thin or in between, are deeply unattractive to most everybody else anyway—that occurs to me almost every day when I walk through the train station at the end of the day and see my fellow gray-faced commuters hauling their sorry selves home. Which is fine, because they don't have to be attractive to everyone else—they still find a loved one to embrace them for who they are.
     Acceptance cuts both ways. My gut tells me that those few who were worked up about my description of the crawling ladies might have an issue accepting themselves. All the fat people I heard from were testy, as if that helped their case.  Maybe I didn't hear too many complaints about my piece because most fat people are comfortable enough with their condition that they don't have to go to war over perceived slights. That's a kind of confidence. I have a big head and a big nose and a big ass, and if any of these qualities were pointed out by a writer describing another person in another context, I know I wouldn't take to Twitter to denounce that writer for drawing attention to our deficiencies or, more precisely, excesses. They are what they are, and there isn't a lot I can do about the first two and the last, well, I've grown accustomed to it. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Embrace the line"

     So what kind of idiot waits four hours in line to eat a hot dog?
     That would, um, be me.
     And my entire family.
     Hot Doug’s, of course, the famed frankfurter mecca, which stunned the encased meat world May 6 by stating that it will close in October. I had never been. No need. I’d heard the wait could be two hours, and that was before owner Doug Sohn’s announcement. Madness.
     But when I asked the older boy what he’d like to do this summer, the first thing he said was “Go to Hot Doug’s.” The first thing.
Fois gras and duck sausage with foie gras mousse
    On Friday, facing the three-day Memorial Day weekend, I ask what we should all do. “Hot Doug’s” my wife says. Thank you dear.
     Hoping to cut the wait, I form a strategy: Arrive at 10:30 a.m., when it opens. Maybe the line won’t be so long. That’s a plan!
     But we are late getting on the road; it’s 10:55 a.m. by the time I park on Elston and we walk down Roscoe toward Hot Doug’s.
     The line stretches nearly a block. Maybe 250 people. We get in back. After 10 minutes, a Hot Doug’s employee pops up to chide us.
     “From here the wait is four hours,” he announces, indicating a spot in front of us. “You’re waiting four hours for a hot dog!”
     He suggests we all come back another day. Makes sense to me; I’m ready to bolt, hit Honey Butter Fried Chicken down the block. No line. My family wants to stay put.
     I’m going home then, I tell them, spend a few hours on this beautiful day ... doing something else. I’ll return in four hours.
     The older boy walks the block to the car with me, to retrieve a bottle of water. I work on his resolve: Why are you doing this?
     "What would I be doing at home?" he reasons. "Reading The New York Times. What am I doing here? Reading The New York Times." He shrugs; what matters the place?
     Reaching the van, I wonder: Go home, by myself, and do what? Weed the garden? Really? If waiting four hours for a hot dog is dumb, ditching my family is worse. I return.
     One hour. A vendor sells Mexican ices. A Good Humor truck parks, blaring "Turkey in the Straw" at full volume. I think of Marlowe: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it."
     The Hot Doug's guy comes back We now have a 2½-hour wait. "We've gained half an hour!" my wife says, brightly.
     Two hours. Snatches of conversation. "We're in already, we're eating," someone says, teasing a friend on the cellphone.
     Reading the New Yorker: My pal Adam Gopnik starts an article with his family in a trattoria in Italy. I can see the Gopniks in white linen, reclining on chaises, speaking Italian, sipping prosecco. Meanwhile, the Steinbergs stand waiting for a hot dog.

     "We should have brought a picnic," my wife says, brightly.
     Two hours. Calm settles in. A family plays Hacky Sack. Two gals hand out Red Bulls. Two guys from Fresno are hitting ballparks; 18 so far. "How often do you have the chance to do something truly insane?" I muse.
     Three hours. Two quite hefty women in front of us tire of standing and sit. But the line keeps moving so, not wanting to stand up, one scoots. The other crawls, on her knees, on the sidewalk. I almost suggest that instead of loading up on duck fat fries they consider checking themselves into a hospital. But that seems, oh, hostile.
     We get to the door at 2:30 p.m. A passerby asks how long we've been in line.
     "Three and a half hours," I say.
     "You're joking right?" he replies. I shrug.
     At just under four hours we reach Sohn, focused, polite, at the register, taking orders. I ask how he feels about retirement.
     "Bittersweet," he says. "Sad. No regrets." I mention that the line was, to my surprise, kind of fun. "Embrace the line," he replies.
     We take a seat. Our dogs are brought, we dig in. My chardonnay and jalapeno rattlesnake sausage with caramelized onion whipped mustard, cocoa cardona cheese, duck confit and Black Sea salt is excellent. My wife's Vietnamese chicken sausage with fried rice noodles, even better. The basic Chicago dogs we get as baselines are perfect. My wife raves about the duck fat fries.
     In the postmortem, my older son says he still prefers Little Louie's, the iconic Northbrook hot dog stand. "You both were really, really hungry and it clouded your judgment," he says. "I think the four-hour wait was more valuable than the food itself. I didn't go for the food. I went so I can say I was there."

     "We're never, ever going back," says Kent, half prediction, half command.
     My wife, as always, sums it up perfectly:
     "If we had spent four hours at Wrigley Field, nobody would have thought twice."
     "Better than going to Wrigley," I reply. "It cost a lot less, the food was far better, and we didn't have to watch the Cubs lose."
     Now that I've visited, I see why Sohn is closing. He has created a mania whose perceived worth dwarfs its actual value. I would go back. Unless he closes, people will wait for hours, days. Closing it is a kindness.

     Update: Chicago magazine's web site reported on Sept. 27 that people were waiting up to eight hours in line at Hot Doug's, which is set to close Oct. 3. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What will become of the divided city?


     Politics is local. It is also eternal, in that the dynamics that shape one time are invariably mirrored in the next, century after century. We think we've come so far and then, looking back, realize we're still where we started.
     Florence in 1300, for instance, was divided between the grandi—the big fish—and the popolo, aka, everybody else, as Prue Shaw neatly puts it in her vastly enjoyable new book, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. That passage had already sparked Chicago in mind when Shaw served up this comment about Dante exploring the underworld:
     An urgent desire to know what lies in store for his birthplace is one of the driving forces of the narrative in the poem. Dante's anxious questioning of Ciacco, the first Florentine he meets in hell, encompasses ...the city's future: a che verranno/ li cittadin de la citta partita ("what will become of the citizens of the divided city?") 
     Exactly. "What will become of the citizens of the divided city?" Can a question evoke Chicago more poignantly? What will become of this most segregated city? Where are we going, separately and together? Do we have any control over where that place may be? 
     With this rattling about in my brain Monday, I gritted my teeth and finally plunged into Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic, which as been getting a lot of attention over the past week.  It's quite long — just as The Divine Comedy is divided into cantos, so the article consists of 10 "chapters." Though you can still polish it off in under an hour and I suggest you do so. 
    Coates lays out something that is clear to anyone who considers the matter honestly: that the poverty and dysfunction that are the hallmark of many black communities in Chicago and across the country are the direct result of slavery and its aftermath. That said, I used to think the idea of reparations was a futile symbolic hobbyhorse ridden by those horrified at actually addressing our problems concretely. Now, I'm not so sure.
    The piece is calm, historical, well-reasoned and — as so often is the case in the push for civil rights — argues for something both very small in practicality and enormous in meaning. There is a bill introduced into Congress every year, Rep. John Conyers' HR 40, which would study the issue of reparations. That's all. Not pay out a dime. Just explore the issue. It has never been passed, and Coates feels that it should be passed, not just out of fairness, but because our nation will never be whole, he argues, will never move beyond a past that still hobbles us, unless we do.
     I'll let you form your own conclusion, though I came away thinking this: a) he's completely right and b) he's appealing to the same sort of people who created this system in the first place. I hate to be cynical, but society has been divided, not just since Dante's Florence, but since Cain and Abel. It's hard to appeal to a humanity that isn't there.
    But if change is impossible, there's no need to talk at all. Things do change. At least they can. 
    His argument has a powerful twist that allows the thoughtful person to at least hope it could have traction. Usually, when discussing reparations, writers who bring up German reparations to Jews after World War II do so simplistically — Jews got it so why shouldn't we? Coates is far more subtle and informed — he points out how Germany's paying reparations to Israel not only helped Israel create its economic infrastructure, but helped Germany regain its lost moral standing in the world. Our nation, whose greatness has entered such steady eclipse, could use the idea of reparations, not to repair the wrong of slavery — that is patently impossible — but as a jumping off point to repair itself while salving an old injury. We wouldn't consider reparations for the benefit of blacks — not a strong motivational force in America today — but we might do it for ourselves.
    Then again, seeing how global warming — the ultimate self-interest — has been received, hope seems foolish. We haven't the heart to keep wealth from pooling obscenely now, never mind the will to consider the horrendous injustices of the past and the legacy that perpetuates them to this very day. The divided city will stay divided. Rahm will call Chicago "the most American of American cities" without ever considering whether that is praise or damnation.
     The past is a bad place, and many suffered there. You can't throw a dart at the globe and find a country that wasn't based on robbery and murder and wrong. And yet. Is there another nation where the past so manifestly deforms the present? Where ideals of equality are so baldly rendered into lies? Perhaps they all do. Coates makes reparations into a code for the notion that we truly are, as I said this morning when I put out the flag and recited the pledge, hand over heart, "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
     Pretty to think so, as Hemingway might say. 
     I'm not doing Coates' thoughts justice. The article centers on Chicago, and is well worth the time of anyone who cares anything about the city. You can read it by clicking here. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

Wyatt Eisenhauer

     Strawberries are ready for picking in mid-May in Southern Illinois. So when a U.S. Army car pulled up to the small gray house in downstate Pinckneyville almost exactly nine years ago, Gay and Fred Eisenhauer had dozens of people in their strawberry patch: workers filling orders and drivers who stopped to pick their own at 45 cents a pound. 
     The two soldiers walked to the front door, where they were met by great-niece Raygan, 6, who told them that Aunt Gay had said that anybody trying to come in the front door should be told to go around to the side. The worry: muddy boots.
     So the pair went to the side door and knocked again.
     “When I seen who they were,” Gay Eisenhauer remembers, “I said, ‘Raygan, go get Uncle Fred at the strawberry shed.’ ”  
     Together, they heard the worst news that a parent can hear.
      “Are you father of Cavalry Scout Wyatt D. Eisenhauer?” Fred was asked when he arrived. He said he was. “We are sorry to inform you that on May 19...” 
     Their 26-year-old son, a private first class who hadn’t been in the Army a year, had been driving a Humvee in Iraq when the vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. The two soldiers with Wyatt would remember only a flash and then waking up in a hospital in Germany. Wyatt didn’t make it. 
     How does a mother react to such news?
     “In all honesty, it felt like an out-of-body experience,” Gay Eisenhauer says. “I was just floating up over everyone looking down. It wasn’t real.”
     Gay’s next thought was of Wyatt’s older sister. 
     “I called my son-in-law at work and told him, ‘You have to tell Rebecca. You have to go to her.’ ”
     Rebecca Anderson lives a mile from her parents, across corn fields and a dirt road. She had just been picking at the strawberry patch but had gone home. 
     Her husband walked in, looking sick, pale. 
     “What are you doing home in the middle of the day?” she asked him. “Did you get fired? What happened?” 
     “Wyatt’s dead,” he said.
      Rebecca Anderson started screaming at her husband “It’s nothing to joke about!” she cried, hitting him. “It’s nothing to joke about!”
     Wyatt D. Eisenhauer was one of 3,527 American servicemen and women killed in the Iraq war, one of the approximately 840,000 Americans who have died fighting for this country since the Revolutionary War. 
     On Memorial Day, we are supposed to remember their enormous sacrifice and the loss felt by their loved ones, although it’s impossible to give those numbers any kind of meaning, since it’s hard to do justice to even one....
    "He was very inquisitive," says his mother. "He wanted to know how things worked and why they worked. He would take it apart, try to put it back together . . ."
     "He was kind of like a genius when it came to mechanical things," agrees Anderson. "He would build dune buggies, go-karts."
     Wyatt studied at Southern Illinois University. After school he started work. But his life didn't feel complete. His father, grandfathers, great-uncles had all served.
     "He talked about it for several years," Anderson says. "He just felt that he could give back. It would be an opportunity for him to do more, to do something really worthwhile."
     His sister was reluctant to see him enlist.
     "I was in support of him, but the selfish part of me, no, I didn't want him to go. I was going to miss him," she says. "My brother and I were really, really close growing up, being in a rural area, most afternoons and evenings and summers we were always together. He was my friend and playmate, growing up.
     "Family was really important to him," she continues. "He wanted to be married, always laughed and said, 'The reason I haven't got married yet is I want to find a woman (who will) give me 12 kids. I'll have a whole crew of them.'"
     There was a girlfriend.
     "He really cared for the girl," says Anderson. "Probably would have proposed marriage with her. I often wonder about that, think about what my nieces and nephews would be like."
     Wyatt Eisenhauer was buried on Memorial Day 2005.
     "Memorial Day carries a little extra punch for us," his mother says. A friend from high school played taps.
     Over the years, the family has thrown itself into work with organizations helping families cope with the loss of soldiers and helping vets when they return.
     "I think that we can become desensitized," Anderson says. "When you think of the troops, it's almost like they're not real, these people. For me, it was so important he didn't become a statistic, he didn't become a number. It's become a passion of mine to help all of our fallen to be remembered. To talk about loved ones. They each had goals, each had lives to live, loved ones who thought about them, personalities that were unique."
     Not everyone gets this.
     "Even some of your close friends misunderstand," his mother says. "Everyone tells you you've got to get over it, you've got to move on. The thing is . . . you don't get over it. That hole, you have lost a piece of your heart and nothing is going to fill that. Only Wyatt had that part of your heart . . . I don't understand when people say, 'You need to move on.' My question is: 'Tell me where to move to and I'll go there.' "
     When you talk to his family, it's easy to focus on that hole—the nieces and nephews who'll never be born, the engines that will go unrepaired. His family wants to talk about his life, and does. But the loss has a way of creeping back. The strawberry patch, for instance. You can't pick strawberries there anymore.
     "We haven't done it since he was killed," Gay Eisenhauer says. "We just didn't have it in us."

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Children of privilege

Not our house
     When my older son was 16 or so, he would go to parties. I would usually drive him—kids nowadays don't seem to be as keen to get their licenses as my generation was.
     After following complex directions, down streets I'd never heard of, through winding subdivision I'd never been to, I'd finally edge the car onto a block far nicer than ours, a vista of sprawling new brick structures, big homes with elaborate stonework and landscaping, homes that didn't have crazy lawns mottled with crab grass and creeping charlie. The circular driveway, clotted with cars—none of them from 1991—wasn't black asphalt, dotted with potholes and crumbling to rubble around the edges, like ours. I would stop 4o feet from the tangle of arrival and he would hop out and race happily toward the festivities. 
     "Have fun!" I'd call wanly after him.
     Occasionally, picking him up, I would tiptoe into some marble foyer with a big brass chandelier, and catch glimpses of lacquer dining room tables and expensive newness. A clatter of music and voices would be heard, muted, from deep within the house. Eventually a mother or sister or some person associated with the house would take notice of me, cowering there beside a sea of shoes—the carpets!—and my boy would be summoned and we'd flee.
     After a while, I realized that while he was always going over to other places, he never had his friends to our house—our 1905 hand-made farm-house with straw insulation. Not a McMansion, true, but not without charm, of a sort. A certain down-at-the-heels beauty, if you ignore that the aluminum siding is not all of the same color and the floors are not exactly level. It has a spire—I consider the spire very fancy. Hand made by some farmer out of iron strips, as I could tell when it blew down in a storm. Kids would love partying at a place like this. It has a back deck and a yard and everything. 
     After my hints were ignored, I eventually came out and asked directly: Why did he not have his friends over our place? Why not host a party yourself? Fun!
     There was a silence. He looked at me with sorrow. Did I really not know? Must he actually explain?
     "Father," he began—he calls me "father," I believe, in an attempt to add some kind of classiness and dignity to our woefully hectic, scattered and down-market lives—"our house is not a nurturing environment."
      "Not a nurturing environment?" I repeated, wounded. "In what way? In what way is this not a nurturing environment."
     "We don't have a pool table," he replied. 
     That helped. I smiled, relieved. Oh, well, yes, no argument there. Can't expect the gang to gather around the old chess table—Italian, drop walnut leaves, bought back when we had money. Not quite the same effect I suppose. Had I realized that a pool table was necessary to nurture children, I of course would have set my sights on one. But I hadn't and now it was too late. Too late for a lot of things. To take up ophthalmology, for instance, and make sure there was that pool table in the basement instead of just boxes and seepage. Thank God every other home in Northbrook already has a pool table, so my son can be a free rider. So at least they're available. He is like the barefoot child, cadging scraps from the back kitchen steps of chums. Maybe I could buy him a package of those blue cubes, used to chalk pool cues. He could bring one in a little box to his parties, his contribution to the cause. The Steinbergs, they may be down and out, but they have their pride...
     I mention all this to establish the mindset I brought to a conversation Saturday. Driving into the city for lunch—more on that later in the week—we were discussing the op-ed piece in that day's Sun-Times, about the phrase, "Check your privilege."
      My wife explained that this was merely an ad hominen attack, a way to silence another person by attacking who they are without considering the merit of what they have to say. Just because someone was well-off didn't mean they don't have a valuable perspective, she said. They should remember that when they met privileged people...
      The boys objected, both of them, immediately: we are privileged, they said. We come from a privileged family. We are of the elite.
     This struck me as ludicrous.
      "No!" I cried. "Nonsense! We are not privileged! We're frantically clutching to the last greasy rung of the middle class, a paycheck or two away from slipping off and tumbling into the abyss." I considered dragging George Orwell into it—what was his description of his family?  "Lower-upper-middle class." That sounds about right. Not "privileged." People of privilege have leisure. They take their summer vacations in Peru. They don't work every goddamn day of their lives like madmen bailing out a swamped and sinking industry as it settles into the water. People of privilege own lots of nice stuff. The drive German SUVs. They do not, as I did recently, get excited over buying a pair of Rockport boat shoes, so much so that they kiss the shoes. They yawn as the truckloads of goodies arrive. They live in big stone mansions with Doric columns and framed Bulls jerseys and wet bars and slate pool tables with red felt in their finished basements. Our basement is a dripping, dank, moldy, muddy horror show; like something out of a Stephen King story. I began to protest more, but was cut off. 
      "Educationally privileged," one of the boys elaborated, and the other agreed.
      "Oh," I said, stopped in my tracks. Dumbstruck. Educationally privileged. Well, umm, yes, that is correct. No argument here. We are educationally privileged. The Northbrook schools are beyond compare. In elementary school the teachers would send home poetry about how wonderful it was to teach our kids. They would bind their work into little books. My older boy's class took a trip over the summer. To China. Glenbrook South has a gross pathology class, taught at the hospital. My sons have not only never been in a fight in their entire academic careers, but I have never heard of a fight occurring. I suppose I could find fault, but it would take some hard thinking, and time, and I'm not sure what I would come up with. I suppose there has been a bad teacher or two over the past dozen years. So the schools are not perfect. But privileged? Absolutely. That would be the word. 
       I told the boys, well, yeah, in an educational sense, yes, definitely privileged. Conversation shifted to other subjects.
       I don't know why I was happy to hear them say that, but I was. At least they recognize it. And I guess I do too, now. Maybe I was just happy to be privileged in any sense at all. Privileged to have to work hard enough for stuff, to plan and wait and delay that, so when I do occasionally get something I want, I tend to really appreciate it. Maybe I was reminded of an essential truth. You can spend so much time looking up that you forget to look around. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday fun activity—Where IS this?

     It looks like an Apollo space capsule.
     But it isn't.
     It's displayed as if it were in a museum.
     But it's not.
     To see it you have to pay.
     But you're not paying to see it.
     It's in a very famous place.
     But it's not where it's supposed to be.
     What IS this thing?
     And where is it?
     Post your answers below.  The first correct answer will receive one of my dwindling stock of two-color, super-collectible blog posters. Good luck.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Jane Byrne turns 80

     Dear Mayor Byrne:
     Happy birthday! Early, I know — you don’t turn 80* until Saturday. But I want to deliver my best wishes ahead of the pack. 
     Since we live in a cynical age, I must swear, off the bat, I’m sincere. This is no Brutus-is-an-honorable-man take-down disguised as praise. Everybody deserves nice words on her birthday, and you more than most. You’ve already taken your blows. You came from the outside, defeated a sitting mayor who had fired you for criticizing his administration. Yes, there was that timely blizzard, which made your victory seem divinely ordained. But it was also your spunk. Or as you so eloquently put it, at the time, you “beat the whole goddamn machine single-handedly.” 
     That you did, that you did. After winning the Democratic primary in February, 1979 — the first time since 1927 that the slated machine candidate did not become mayor of Chicago — you crushed your Republican opponent, Wallace Johnson, winning 82 percent of the vote. I haven’t checked all history, but if there is a more lopsided victory here, I’m not aware of it.
     Winning the only electoral office you ever held escorted you into a spinning buzz saw. If Rahm feels cocky for surviving one major strike — the teachers — you endured three, one after another, in your first three months in office. You inherited a city awash in debt — jeez, does nothing change? — and so tried to cut back on cost-of-living increases, sparking the ire of city employees, who struck three consecutive months, boom boom boom. The CTA union in December, 1979, the firemen in January, 1980 and, in February, the teachers. 
     Madam Mayor — I can’t call you “Jane,” it feels too familiar and perhaps insulting, and I think you’ve been insulted enough. “Calamity Jane” and “Attila the Hen” and worse in a sexist era, slurs I’d be reluctant to reprint now, but your enemies did not hesitate to say then.
      And you made an A-list of bitter enemies.  Richie Daley was just the start.
     "An erratic and stormy person, she kept the city quaking during her first administration," wrote Nobelist Saul Bellow. "Appointees hired and fired without rhyme or reason whirled in and out of the revolving doors."
     That might have been true, but still, anybody Saul Bellow disliked is OK in my book.
     What do Chicagoans recall? You began the festival that got Taste of Chicago going. Millions have happy memories of standing in the middle of the street, licking barbecue sauce off our fingers, because of you. That's something. You started the revival of Navy Pier.
     You moved into the Cabrini-Green public housing project. It was a stunt, sure, but not a stunt we'd ever see today. Cabrini-Green is gone, and the poor people who used to live there . . . they sort of vanished, haven't they? I mean, they must exist, scattered in other places, but as soon as those high-rise projects came down, the city forgot their occupants. You, on the other hand, saw this intractable problem and tried to do something about it. You made it your problem. That took courage.
     That it couldn't be fixed, well, to me that is part of the Jane Byrne Lesson — the point of the story. We love outsiders. We root for David, not Goliath. So outsiders can and do win. But once they get their hands on the levers of power, well, somehow the darn things just don't work for them — you didn't invent that. Another outsider who took office a couple years before you did, Jimmy Carter, learned the same lesson, one taught over and over.
     I have your phone number and really wanted to call. But you haven't been in the press at all, for years, and I was reluctant to bother you. I last saw you, three years ago, at Rahm Emanuel's inauguration, slowly crossing the stage. I did phone your daughter to see if you'd welcome intrusion. She never got back. I get it.
     So even though you may have washed your hands of us — and who could blame you? — that didn't strike me as a reason we should ignore you. You were a pioneer — the first woman elected mayor in Chicago and even now, no larger city in America has elected another. You fought hard and had a quality I admire: you kept fighting. "I will be conquered," Samuel Johnson said. "I will not capitulate."
     You may think that you've been forgotten, erased from history. I know you were unhappy when Mayor Daley tore out your fountain. Maybe he did it to spite you — he's the type — or maybe a big fountain didn't belong in the middle of Wacker Drive. But it was there for a while, and Chicagoans still remember it.
     I sure do. The night I proposed to my future wife, we were crossing Wacker and stopped at the fountain — dedicated to children, remember? — and did a little impromptu ritual, anointing each other in the water, a kind of baptism of expectant parenting. It worked; the boys are 16 and 18 now. Thanks.
     Happy Birthday. Chicago has not forgotten.

* If any reader wonders how she turned 80 in May 2014 and died at 81 in November, the answer is she lied about her age, shaving a year off, and covered it up for years, according to my colleague Mike Sneed, who says she confirmed it with her daughter Kathy. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"The law's delay..."

    Legal woes are always distressing, even when you've done nothing wrong and are certain—well, as certain as you can be in the crapshoot of our legal system—of exoneration. So when I heard that a colleague at the Sun-Times was being sued by the subject of a story who—I have absolutely no doubt—was merely unhappy to see his words in print, I went over to commiserate, and later sent him this column from 2000 about the vicissitudes of the legal process. After I read it, for the first time in 14 years, I thought it might be helpful to others who find themselves in court. The only thing I left out was a bit of key advice my wife gave me for appearing before a judge: "If you find yourself in a situation where you can either speak or stay silent, always choose to stay silent." Very wise advice.

Wheels of justice turn v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y
   There are 73,728 small squares on the ceiling of Courtroom 1501 in the Daley Center.
    Not that I counted every square, waiting to stand before the bar of justice. I did the math. But I probably could have counted. I had the time.
     I had never been sued before, and found the experience not only hour-devouring and distressing but, in an odd way, uplifting. Looking back over this year of Sturm und Drang (that's German for "moving to the suburbs"), the lawsuit stands out as a lingering piece of unfinished business I should confront before 2000 can be dumped, with a grateful sigh, into the dustbin to make way for a shiny, new 2001.
    Being sued sucks. It is days in a windowless, airless room, somehow both too big and claustrophobic, waiting for your case to be called, staring dully at tiles on the ceiling, hearing the headachy murmur of legalisms just out of earshot, noting the starched exhaustion of lawyers, the unease of regular folk.
    There are motions and counter-motions. Many times I recalled that Hamlet, listing reasons to kill himself in his famous "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, puts "the law's delay" up high, right after the pangs of despriz'd love.
    Sure, I could have hired a lawyer to handle it all. But first, I'm too cheap. Second, I can't roll over in bed without hitting a lawyer. Third, I wanted to experience the thing, firsthand, to feel its essence. I won't go into the particulars of what sparked the suit. Like most of what winds up in court, it was ridiculous and peevish. Suffice it to say it emerged from what happened between myself and a young man in line at a drugstore. Words were exchanged.
    The guy pulled a knife and ended up hauled off in handcuffs by the cops.
    As he was taken away, an officer said, "Be sure to show up in court or he'll sue you." But I didn't. He hadn't hurt me. I figured, in the scope of atrocities committed daily in the city, this little incident wasn't worth pursuing. I didn't want to waste my time or add to his woes.
    There is no hell in Judaism, no divine punishment for sins. So I saw being sued as a minor form of punishment—a purgatory—for not listening to the police officer (always, always dear readers, listen to the police officer. He knows).
    The process was made almost worth it by the judge (and I'm not polishing apples since the case is—I think—over). The guy suing me didn't have a lawyer either, and didn't seem to grasp the fine points of the legal system, such as the need to show up. Despite my passionate desire to get this over with, I had to admire how the judge—whose eyes conveyed a seen-it-all-twice weariness—tried to cut this guy every break, so that the avenues of justice would not be denied a person just because he happened to be in jail the day his motion was dismissed.
    The lawsuit ground on between August and early December. Quick for law. The odd thing was, as it progressed, I began to like the guy suing me. He had an Energizer Bunny doggedness I appreciated. Despite losing at each step, he pressed on, filing new motions, a Terminator of the Municipal Court.
    After our last—one hopes, in law you never can tell—court appearance, we rode down in the elevator together. "Well," I said. "If I don't see you before Christmas—though if history is any judge, I will—have a merry one." He replied that he reads me in the newspaper.
    I don't want to say that I'll miss court, because I won't. But I will cling to the lessons I've learned: Be unfailingly polite. Listen to the police. And forgive the people you cross swords with. So belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Mr. Guy-Who-Sued-Me. Among my usual lightly-held New Year's resolutions is the iron vow to keep myself out of court, if humanly possible. You might consider doing the same.

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times Dec. 28, 2000

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lucas museum might seem like a good idea, now...

     Have you been to the Flash Gordon Museum yet? Right next to the Adler Planetarium? Lots of fun. There’s a mock-up of Ming the Merciless’ throne room on the planet Mongo, and you can reach out and touch the fearsome Sea Beast ...
     OK, OK, there is no Flash Gordon Museum next to the Adler, and a good thing too.
     If you are unfamiliar with Flash, he was very big in the 1930s, first as
George Lucas
a newspaper cartoon, then as a movie, then a movie serial, which kids in the 1950s and 1960s saw endlessly rerun on television.
     I bring up Flash as a reminder that fame fades, even huge fame, even “Star Wars”-level fame. It bathes its creator George Lucas in a golden glow now but will not last forever. Watching the city bend over backward to put his proposed museum on the Chicago lakefront, I hate to be a spoilsport, but I have to ask: Do we want this museum?
     What’s going to be inside? The museum’s website — still is clunkily wooing San Francisco, a move rejected by those in charge of the waterfront park where Lucas first wanted to put it — describes it this way:
     “The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum will be a center highlighting populist art from some of the great illustrators of the last 150 years through today’s digital art used to create animated and live-action movies, visual effects, props and sketches,” alongside paintings from Norman Rockwell — Lucas owns 57 — plus other classic illustrators such as Maxfield Parrish and J.C. Leyendecker.
     All good. So it’s not just going to be Mel’s Drive-in from “American Graffiti” and Indiana Jones’ fedora from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Your average tourist in 2024 won’t care much about those.
     I should confess here. I’m the rare moviegoer who liked “THX 1138,” Lucas’ first movie, a jarring sci-fi film with Robert Duvall, far more than “Star Wars.”
     I can remember seeing the first "Star Wars" debut in the summer of 1977, as a 17-year-old, worldly as a kitten. I walked out of the theater, disappointed and puzzled. Here you have a movie that is basically a two-hour running gun battle at close range between minions of the evil Galactic Empire and these four rebels, one of whom is 7 feet tall, and the ooh-scary stormtroopers can't so much as graze the wookiee's ear? Weak.
     It was downhill from there, and by the time the Empire was overthrown by teddy-bear escapees from a toilet paper TV commercial, the charm was lost on me.
     To give Lucas the benefit of the doubt, I assume he's savvy enough that his museum will take its "cultural arts" name seriously and not just be a showcase for his dusty mementos, though I note that "warehouse" is part of its description. Between the gravitas of the Art Institute and the edginess of the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is room for a museum that showcases the more popular aspects of culture: not just movies, but advertising, illustration, fashion.
     Still, someone should ask: Are tourists, for whom "Star Wars" carries the emotional heft of "Buck Rogers" - another big science-fiction movie series of yesteryear - going to line up for a museum dedicated to Arrow shirt ads and magazine covers, and the magic behind movies they've never seen?
     For the record, Lucas museum could be a great idea, something that graces our lakefront and gives the nearly 50 million tourists who visit Chicago another place to go.
     Or maybe not. Private museums can be bland money-making tourist traps, as anyone who has gone to, oh, the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., knows. If all the Lucas museum is going to offer visitors is a chance to pay $24 to see R2-D2 and C-3PO's actual costumes and then be shunted into the biggest gift shop of all time, is that really what the city of Chicago should support? It's not as if Lucas were putting his $300 million behind the DuSable Museum and relocating it to the lakefront. Given the educational and civic roles of the Adler, the Field and the Shedd, we need to look closely and ask what exactly Lucas is offering, who will control it, and do we really want it, not only now, but in the future?
     Museums as entertainment have a way of getting dated, fast. Look at the scrap of Disneyland that Springfield built around Abraham Lincoln. It opened in 2005 at a cost of $170 million, yet already is showing its age, in need of a big face-lift despite infusions of state cash. It's like Six Flags Great America regularly requiring a new high-tech roller coaster to draw a quickly bored public. Time passes, fame fades. We are all happy George Lucas is hanging around Chicago, where the winters are cold but the people are warm. Of course, let's consider his museum. But take a long look at it first. Because once it's there, it'll be there for a long time.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

An inch of progress in a hundred-mile crawl

   This was my column in the Sun-Times yesterday—I didn't post it here because I wanted to comment on Jimmy Armstrong on the day of his funeral. But I didn't want this to sink into the mists either. Not a ton of reaction to it, which is a shame. I think the subject might be too grim for people to think about.  

   Linda Brown is not as famous as, say, Rosa Parks. Yet she is a civil rights pioneer too. As a 9-year-old third-grader in Topeka, Kansas, in 1950, Linda wasn’t allowed to attend the Sumner School, a few blocks from her home, along with Mona and Guinevere and her other friends living in their integrated neighborhood.
     Rather, she had to walk half a mile and catch a bus to the all-black Monroe School, two miles away.
     Her father, Oliver Brown, joined a group of 13 black parents suing the school board in February 1951 — the famous case is named after him because he was the sole male plaintiff, so his name was listed first. The case became Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court ruling whose 60th anniversary was Saturday.
     The case ended the “separate but equal” legal fiction used to justify segregation of black students from white.
     “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race,’’ the Court declared, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
     Prophetic words, particularly since the system of segregation wasn’t undone. Now instead of being enforced by law, it’s maintained by economics and geography.
     What happened? The law changed, but hearts and minds did not, especially white hearts and minds set on keeping old ways. The ruling was met with a formal rebellion known as “massive resistance” in the South — a decade of chaos, as black students tried to enroll in white schools. It could take a platoon of National Guardsmen to do it.
     Up in the broad-minded North, we savored the show, forgetting that segregation here was just as extreme but maintained in a different style. In Chicago, it was the result of brutally enforced residential segregation, whose logic was: A black family couldn’t move into a house in a white area if their potential neighbors burned it down first. If thwarted, white Chicagoans fled rather than mingle with blacks, first to private and parochial schools, then to the suburbs.
     The Brown court case shouldn't be celebrated as a change so much as mourned as a lost opportunity. This is a problem that we should put our full attention to, not nod at on anniversaries. If all people are created equal—and they are—then the relative poverty and dysfunction of poor black areas of the city is an artifact of the past, as is the comfort and success of upscale white areas.
     In 1980, whites comprised half the city but only 18.4 percent of public schools when the Justice Department sued Chicago Public Schools for having a "continuing system-wide effect of segregating students on a racial and ethnic basis."
     The white school population kept shrinking. Now it's below 9 percent. Trying to desegregate CPS, a wag wrote, is like trying to bake an apple pie with a teaspoon of apples.
     White flight guaranteed desegregation never got a chance to work. Nor was the problem relegated to the '50s. In 1990, Carroll Elementary in Ashburn/Wrightwood was 37 percent white. Then a white man was shot and killed during a robbery in 1993, and a realtor and a woman she was showing a house were raped. Suddenly the neighborhood flipped. In 1999, Carroll Elementary's white population was 1.7 percent.
     As important as the issue is, to talk about blacks in the public schools is to miss a key point. Between 1970 and 1990, the white population of CPS fell by 75 percent. But the Hispanic student population climbed by about the same amount. African-Americans aren't even the majority of the city's public schools anymore. CPS is 44 percent Latino, 41 percent black; in 1986 it had been 60 percent black. A reminder that while we're looking back at the unresolved civil rights struggles of the past, a new unresolved struggle—the integration of Hispanics into national civic life—generally is ignored.
     Today, the law isn't the problem. Official brutality isn't the problem. The problem is the inertia of a system built up and maintained by both, continuing on its own accord in this segregated city, a Frankenstein's monster America created over centuries and can't stop now. As bad as the past was, at least then some thought this might be fixed. Who believes that now? Sixty years is a long time. But not long enough to untangle this knot of tragedy and lost opportunity that our grandparents and great-grandparents wove and left for us. Thanks, gramps.
     Oliver Brown, by the way, died of a heart attack in 1961. His daughter Linda still lives in Kansas, where she helped create a foundation to foster educational equality.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Jimmy Armstrong, dead at 55.

Jimmy Armstrong
     The great James Thurber once wrote, years after he had settled on the East Coast, that the clocks that struck in his dreams were often the clocks of Columbus.
    That's how it goes, not just for us guys from Ohio, but for everyone.
     When you leave your home town, it stays with you, lodged in your heart like a little snow globe, one that you take out on fewer and fewer occasions as time grinds on and give a gentle shake, trying to see the people inside through the swirling snows of yesteryear. It gets harder and harder to make them out, their figures fading as the years fly past. But they are still there, and occasionally one flickers into view, a faint ghost, to whirl once again for a moment before vanishing altogether.

     In Berea High School in the late 1970s, like all high schools, there were the jocks and the greasers—"racks" we called them, for murky reasons. There were the band geeks and the brains, the popular kids and the outcasts.
      And then there was Jimmy Armstrong, in a class all by himself. He was a cool cat. He proudly smoked cigarettes and drank black coffee, as well as other things, and philosophized. He played music. I remember pausing between classes, in the doorway of the school auditorium, listening, rapt, while he sat alone on stage in the empty room and noodled on an electric piano, all alone. He was good. 
     Jimmy was handsome, but had a deformed upper lip—it was a little thicker than it was supposed to be. He was sensitive about it—you were never supposed to ask him, and I never did. A substitute teacher once made a passing crack, probably in reaction to his mouthing off, and he stood up and pointed at her then chewed her out in a way I never forgot. I was dumbstruck that a kid could talk like that to a teacher, but that was Jimmy. The rules did not apply. He was Huck Finn.
     I can't remember why we hung out—it's been too long—but I know that once or twice I was at his house, near the fire station, and he was at mine. My guess is that Jimmy was cool, and coolness was something I sorely lacked, while he probably admired my smarts. I remember I used a word, "valkyrie," that he had never heard before. I explained to him what it meant, and he was just delighted. He was, he said, going to write a song about it. He was so happy, it made me happy. I'm not sure if he ever did, but I liked the idea of having an impact on someone who was creative, someone who was a musician, an artist. 
    For a few years after college I'd call Jimmy when  I went home to Berea to visit my folks. In 1984, he was opening for the Eurythmics at the Agora, and I went to see him play—at least I think it was him. There's this video online that gives you a sense of the music.  His brush with fame came in 1986, when he was on the TV show "Star Search" with Ed McMahon. But it was just a brush. I can't tell whether he was good or not, but either way, he never made it out of Berea. As the last line of his obituary put it: "But the ability to make something of his own inherent creativity continued to elude him." You grab, but the thing you're grabbing at dances mockingly away. I can relate to that.
    The last time I spoke with Jimmy was 20 years ago—I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show, talking about a book, and he phoned me in Chicago, so excited. Jimmy could have this little kid quality that cut through all the hipster pretense, an enthusiasm that was more endearing than hauteur could ever be, and I remember hearing him enthuse about seeing me on Oprah and smiling, thinking, "Not so cool now, are we, Jimmy?"
    The past 25 years of his life, I really have no idea. I went back to Berea with Edie, and he rolled by my parents' house with a friend. But the visit didn't go well; Jimmy was abrupt, even rude—I can't quite put my finger on why; perhaps in his view I was now conventional and domestic, playing house with this gal, while he was courting greatness. Maybe I caught him on a bad day. Edie didn't take to Jimmy, naturally, and that was that. Though that is not something to judge a person on. A woman who wrote to me from Berea a few days ago said she and her mom would often see Jimmy at church. "My mom and I always noticed how kind he was to his mother, how much he seemed to enjoy taking her to mass." That says a lot, but I couldn't tell you if he was generally a good or bad person, whether he lived a happy or sad life. Probably some mix of those, like most of us.
    The obituary on the Cool Cleveland web site mentions his "substance abuse demons"—The Plain Dealer specifies it as heroin.  Jimmy was the first person I ever heard mention "AA"—I think we were still in high school. I do remember bumping into him once downtown and us deciding to go to the state store to buy a bottle of wine, which we shared under a bridge in downtown Berea. Something novel for me, but a routine that Jimmy seemed familiar with. That sounds more debased that it really was—Berea was our hometown, as comfortable as an old shoe. Ducking under a bridge was something kids did on a summer's day, then. Some of us did, anyway. When we finished the bottle, I walked away thinking, "That was fun, but not how I want to spend my time." Maybe Jimmy should have left town and tried his luck at the big time. Maybe he did—I really didn't know him well. So maybe he did, though that can just end in another kind of disappointment.
    His funeral is today at St. Mary's Church in Berea, Ohio.  Jimmy Armstrong was 55.