Saturday, April 30, 2016

Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli.

     "I'm just wondering, with all this talk about transgendered people using the washroom, I want to know, who is going to be doing the checking? How do they plan on enforcing the law?" 
                                                                           —Phone message, April 29, 2016

     "Good evening. Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli. Please feel free to avail yourself to a stick of Wrigley's spearmint chewing gum or Lifesaver mint. But only one, please.
      "Why yes, I remember you, too. You asked for blueberry bagels last year. There is no such thing as a blueberry bagel. Not at the Steinberg Bakery which is closed for a month. Being remodeled. We are installing new, crazy expensive terrazzo counters and tile floor. The contractor said two weeks which means four. In the meantime, I told my brother Morton that I'd help him with the restroom duty at the delicatessen when I wasn't overseeing the work. You have to watch them, like a hawk you do.
      "It is not easy, the rest room duty. Believe me. Now a nice gentleman like yourself, there is no need to ah ... examine the package. But younger men, teenagers, they can be very smooth-skinned and fair. The way they dress nowadays. Hard to tell the boys from the girls....
     "No, I have not had a lady come in here yet a, how do you say, transgendered individual. But I've only been here a week. Morty's sister, Alice, is in the ladies room. She had someone she was certain was a man. I mean, there were shoulders, a mustache....
     "No, no, we cannot touch the patron. That would be assault.  All we can is ask. Insist. Alice asked the lady to ... well, see the goods. This lady, she became very offended, and left before the police could be called. Which is good, you are supposed to call the police, because it is a crime, to go into the men's room with the equipment of a woman, and versus vice.
    "Turns out, Mort said later, it was indeed a woman—Mrs. Berkowitz's sister, visiting from Cleveland. She had never been here before, which is why Alice didn't recognize her. Her own fault, really, for not being a customer. Still, an unfortunate incident. Not only did the sister get mad, but Mrs. Berkowitz too. A good customer for 20 years. She'll come around. Where else can you get such garlic pickles? Nowhere. Mort makes them himself, from Polish cucumbers raised in oaken tubs.
    "But the law is the law. 'The Illinois Restroom Safety and Decency Act.'  It's framed right there on the counter, next to the bottle of Old Spice. Please feel free to avail yourself to the Old Spice. It's bracing.
     "The law requires that the act be framed and prominently displayed, though I think that Moishe would do so anyway. He doesn't want his customers to think that he cares ... about ... you know ... what they have ... down there. He only cares that you order a corn beef sandwich, or something, enjoy your lunch, and not linger. Sometimes people linger, eating the rolls and pickles—the best!—for hours. But what can you do? You can't throw them out. Even a cup of coffee. That was the biggest problem Mort had, people who get a club soda and think they're entitled to a basket of rolls and a jar of pickles.
    "But times change. Mort has had his deli here for, what, 50 years? More. Since 1964. Before it belonged to our uncle Sol. It was called Sol's. But Sol became ill, and had no children. Well, two girls, but no boys to pass the business onto. Girls have no sense for the business. The girls had no interest in the delicatessen, went to school somewhere and got jobs, one became, I don't know, a physicist, the other a pilot.
     "In all that time, there was never trouble with the restroom. Well, sometimes a parent would order their kid the Jumbo Atomic Hot Fudge Sundae, and let the child eat the whole thing—it's supposed to be shared with four people—and he would rush into the bathroom and, well, let me tell you. My brother told me it was like somebody pulled the pin on a grenade in there. There was throw-up on the ceiling. 
    "But as far as men dressed as women lurking about the stalls, pouncing upon the customers doing their business, that was never a problem. Which is what makes the law so strange to me. Now Mort, he says it isn't about restrooms, really. Me, as a baker, I'm used to silly laws. We have to have the kitchen checked for rodent activity, as if that were possible in an establishment of such unsurpassed cleanliness as the Steinberg Bakery. But in other places, yes, so I go along. I try to be a good citizen. Which Mort does too. Though he has a theory. He says, with the Internet and cell phones and freedom, it gets harder to kick the people you hate. Time was, you could, literally, you saw somebody you didn't like, a schwartz, a fairy, whatever, you could walk over, give 'em a kick. And what were they going to do? Nothing. Nobody cared what happened to them.
    "Now, oh boy. Everybody cares. They post the video and everybody cries. Suddenly there are no people ashamed to show their faces in public. They get to ride the bus, use the bathroom, wherever they please. It's a new world. But some people, they don't like it. They have the itchy toe. They're still itching to give their kick and, blocked one way, find another. Not me. I hate no one. I am a businessman. You come in, I sell you butter cookies, no matter how loathsome an individual you happen to be when you are not buying my cookies. It isn't my business. My business is selling you cookies, so give me the money, and get out. Four weeks. Six tops.
    "This law. This stupid law. So now somebody has to sit in the bathroom, checking. In every public restroom with more than two stalls. Sadly, Mort's Deli has three, though he's going to hire my contractor—Sheldon Finkleman and Brothers, the best!— to rip one out. As soon as they're done at the Steinberg Bakery. By June, God willing.
    "Until then, well, here I am. Trying to make the best of it. Not so bad. I got the newspaper. There's the radio, easy listening. Part of it is nice -- like the old days, when there were clubs. The Chez Paree, the Trade Winds. I once saw Tony Bennett at the Double Door. You can't imagine. There was always a colored fellow in the bathroom, handing out towels and brushing off shoulders. Mort should have an actual colored fellow, but it isn't so easy to find one who'll sit in a restroom and guard the mints. Besides, for the enforcement of the law, that requires a certain finesse, a certain authority. Which is why Morty turned to me. I am a figure of respect at the Steinberg Bakery, and run a right ship here. Still, most people are the gender that God intended them to be, and are just answering nature's call, and since I'm here anyway, I try to make it a little elegant for them, for all of us, with the fancy lotions and the music and the aftershave and the combs in blue water. Here's a towel. Please deposit it in the wicker basket. People can be pigs. I know. Here, help yourself to a stick of Wrigley spearmint gum, but only one. Some people scoop up the tray. And thank you -- some gentlemen, they take the gum but leave nothing. Which is their right, but leaves a lingering bitterness. Still, it takes all sorts to make a world. Let me tell you. A little kindness goes a long way. I wish more people knew that.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's all play Ted Cruz connect-the-dots

     Remember connect-the-dots? I do, which is scary. Pages covered with numbered dots, plus a few embellishments that pretty much give the game away unless you're a particularly dim child. Grabbing your squat blue pencil, you draw a line from one dot to the next, using your newly acquired counting skills. An image emerges. Oooo.
     Long gone now, I imagine, another victim of computers.
     Still, we can play connect-the-dots by relating disparate news items until a picture forms.
     Dot 1: Woke up Thursday morning to WBBM radio playing a Ted Cruz campaign commercial — right, Indiana, our slice of the Southland next door, is having its primary Tuesday. The Cruz ad does its own little connect-the-dots, taking the common fear of transgender people, marrying it to Donald Trump, who in a rare moment of common sense, said "people go, they use the bathroom that's appropriate." Cruz offers that as his plea for your vote.
     Rex Huppke wrote a bold explanation in the Tribune this week of just how cowardly, offensive and un-American Cruz is for singling out a long-besieged minority for further abuse. Readers know I am not in the practice of touting the competition, but such considerations are a trifle compared to the welfare of the nation, and must be set aside so long as there is the threat, no matter dwindling, that Cruz could prevail. He's worse than Trump, and that's saying a mouthful....

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Behind every successful man is a woman, laughing at him

     When the Tuesday results came in, and Trump had swept the Republican primaries in all five states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island—suddenly it seemed very real. The man could really be the Republican presidential candidate in November.
      And while that most likely means Hillary Clinton will dice him like a Veg-o-matic, nothing is certain in this world. People certainly hate Hillary Clinton, for ... well, whatever flimsy surrogate they wave around—Benghazi, emails, the death of Vince Foster, if they're Republicans. The war in Iraq, Goldman Sachs, not being Bernie Sanders if they're left wing Democrats. 
     As to where her gender fits into all this, well, it'll take a sharper mind than mine to sort that out. It's easy to assume the GOP hates her because she's a woman since they do seem to go out of their way to scorn women, like Ted Cruz's already-notorious commercial that's about women's restrooms but is addressed to their lords and masters, men.
     But Bill Clinton isn't a woman, and Republicans hate him just as much as they do Hillary.
     Trump came pretty close to denouncing Clinton for her gender Tuesday night. Flush with victory, he lit into his opponent-to-be for what one can assume is her most glaring fault. 
    “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote,” Trump said, during a rambling speech that he turned into a news conference when he ran out of things to say. "The only thing she's got going is the women's card. And the beautiful thing is, women don't like her."
    How that is germane ... well, it goes without saying, though within hours the Clinton campaign had a strong video response online, taking Trump's words and ramming them up his ass, where they belong.
     What Trump is groping at, I think, reflects the common bully belief that oppressed groups are really entitled. Just as Republicans said Obama became president because he was black— since African-Americans just show up and leapfrog into seats of power— when the truth is he became president in spite of it, so many voters aren't embracing Clinton because she's a woman, but they're overcoming their unspoken disdain they have for women and supporting her anyway, because she's smart and talented and the best person for the job.
    To me, the most telling aspect is that Hillary had a speech prepared, while Trump winged it. That's why his fans love him, I know. But a thinking person does not want a president who wings it when preparation is a possibility.
     She certainly is a flawed candidate. But like Democracy as defined by Winston Churchill as "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried for time to time," so Hillary Clinton is the worst candidate, except for all the others that are trying right now. Compared to them, she's Moses and Jefferson in one except, as Trump keeps pointing out, female.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's not just for topiary any longer

     I was standing in a bar in Jerusalem with the newspaper publisher's wife. Having traveled Israel together for a week, we had run out of things to say a few days earlier. So we silently watched the TV over the bar which, at that moment, was showing a Kotex commercial.
     "There's an interesting story about how Kotex was developed . . . " I began.
     "And I suppose you're going to tell me," she said.
     That stung. I know I can be a bore. But certain stories fascinate, such as how 100 years ago Kimberly-Clark, the Wisconsin paper mill, ramped up to make Cellucotton, which went into gas mask filters in the First World War. The war ended abruptly, tanking the gas mask market, so Kimberly-Clark had to figure out what to do with all that Cellucotton. They developed two new products, thin sheets they called "Kleenex" and thick pads they called "Kotex."
    The challenge of selling Kleenex tissues was figuring out what to do with them. Originally they were sold as a way for ladies to remove their makeup. But a nurse suggested sneezing into them, and an industry was born.

     The challenge of selling Kotex was two-fold: first teaching reluctant women — who up to that point used rags — to try the product. And second to push squeamish retailers into selling it. At first they packaged it in plain white boxes....

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"The saving grace of Kumamon"

Repairing Kumamon Castle, part of which collapsed.
"Fight on Kumamon, You're Strong, Kyushu!"
     When I heard that powerful earthquakes had rocked Kyushu, Japan's southwestern island, earlier this month, my first thought was, "But I was just there!"
      A natural sentiment, I suppose, a human reaction, though not a particularly laudable one. I always worry there's something shamefully egocentric about focusing on your remote connection to some distant disaster: Way to make an immense tragedy all about you, Neil.
This cartoon hoped for pets to be reunited with their
families and invoked "the saving grace of Kumamon."
     My second thought seemed even less appropriate: "Send in Kumamon!" A reference to the jolly bear mascot whose birthday party I attended in Kumamoto last month, as part of my research for an article on cuteness I'm writing for Mosaic, the London web site of science and health. He's the most popular yuru-kyara, or "loose characters," representing every town and city, region and company in Japan.
     I momentarily thought of tweeting words to that effect, as a message of solidarity. "This is a job for Kumamon!" Better than the generic "You're in our prayers."
     Then I reconsidered. People were dying: 45 dead, more than a thousand injured. The material loss is tremendous—Toyota, which has a factory there, alone will endure $250 million in lost sales due to interruption of its production lines. 
      So I kept quiet, not wanting to play glib with their tragedy.
This was captioned "Kumamon, Protect the Children"
      Turns out, I could have invoked the great black bear of happiness. Calling upon Kumamon was a common impulse. It seems as if half of Asia did. Not officially. The Kumamoto Prefecture government, which controls Kumamon (he has a desk and a title, director of marketing) had more important things to do than manage their mascot. So his official Twitter feed, which has a half million followers, fell silent.  
     But others must have really needed him. Kumamon was missed. In Kumamon's absence, people across Japan took to social media to express concern both through Kumamon and for him. They wondered where he was. The Japanese embassy in Canada encouraged ex-pats to send messages of support to Kumamon, and noted manga artists led a campaign of drawing Kumamon to express solidarity and raise money for earthquake recovery efforts. I found them quite touching, and thought I would share a few here. 

A particularly lovely effort from mainland China, whose panda says, "Because we're both bears."

Monday, April 25, 2016

Donald Trump: The rare Republican who believes in evolution


     As a lifelong Republican, I enthusiastically support the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. He will make an excellent nominee and, eventually, president, taking his rightful place alongside such GOP icons as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
     If you ask me why Mr. Trump will be an excellent 45th president, I would point to his moderate, commonsense policy on immigration reform; his strong, consistent stand against abortion; plus his opposition to the PC madness currently roiling the South regarding transgender use of public bathrooms, where decency is making a stand against "repulsive perverts," to borrow Ted Cruz's description, bursting into women's restrooms, terrifying our mothers and daughters.
     Nit-pickers among you might point out that Trump has not always believed any of these things. Within recent memory he was calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, suggesting Muslims be blocked at the border, and shrugging off the deep visceral horror represented by people using the toilet without the government concerning itself with the state of their sexual organs.
     To which I would reply: That is evolution, Donald Trump style. Or as his senior aide explained to the Republican National Committee in a closed door meeting last week, up to now Trump has been "projecting an image."
     "The part that he's been playing is now evolving," said chief advisor Paul Manafort....

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Good night sweet prince

     When David Bowie died in January, I thought of all Bowie meant to me, since I was a 16-year-old at Camp Wise, and batted out something reflecting that connection. The paper ran it the next day, on the front page.
     When Prince died Thursday... well, not my table, so I said nothing.
     Wasn't missed. The Internet was an explosion of Prince—remembrances, celebrations, praise, reflection, grief.  Surely nobody wanted to read more.
     So Saturday, nothing. The entire Internet had reverted to Prince anyway.
    To be honest, rather than adding something, I would have subtracted. It was too much—in my opinion, as someone who didn't care for him, one way or the other. I missed the other news that Prince was crowding out. Yes, he was dead. Yes, "Purple Rain." The New Yorker tweeted their purple, raining cover minutes after his death was announced. Everyone wanted in on the action. 
    I wasn't interested in him when he was alive. Kinda late to start now...
    But it felt like sour grapes to say that. The songs, well, people do like that sort of thing, obviously. To me, appreciation of Prince hinged on finding him, or his music, sexy, and, without going into details, not my cup of tea, no. 
     I did think of saying that—offer up something for the Prince indifferent, who might be feeling left out and bewildered. There's comfort in knowing you're not alone. God knows the Prince fans are being catered to. Why not whisper, there is no accounting for taste?
     Yet...why pooh-pooh something people genuinely valued in their moment of (apparently) genuine grief? Bulletin: it's not all about me. 
     Better to wait a few days.
     Maybe on a warm Sunday. Who the heck's reading this anyway? Go outside, get moving. Walk in the 80 degree weather in the Chicago Botanic Garden. That's where I am.
    If Prince wasn't your guy, well, I'm with you. A shame he's gone—57, too young—but I would have settled for the news told once, and that's it. Why does every celebrity death have to be given the Full Diana Treatment? Am I the only one getting tired of the media, hungry for hits, keening over every lost celebrity? It's exploitative.
     With the exception of this post, of course.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Is your dog ready for Passover?

    The woman who owns Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Company phoned a few weeks back. Was I, she asked, interested in writing about their Kosher dog food. "Sure!" I said, then paused. Wait a sec...Didn't I write about you guys? No, no she assured me. 
     I did, and only a few years back. Which means it is too soon for me to take up the subject again; a topic like Kosher dog food needs about 20 years between columns. But in checking, I re-read this Passover piece, and decided it merits sharing, for those who missed it, or just might enjoy reading it again (heck, I enjoyed reading it again, and I wrote the damn thing).  I particularly appreciated the part where I scour the Talmud for dog references. I always feed our dog Kitty before feeding myself: it seems cruel to eat in front of her. Now I see that doing so is also ordained by God. I imagine that dynamic is found in a lot of supposedly-religious practices: impulse first, then divine sanction, if available, second. Then pretend it's the other way around. 
    Happy Passover.

     "So is Kitty keeping Passover?"
     Spoken by my 15-year-old, one of those wise-ass teen questions that pour out of kids' mouths at that age. He had been asking about our family Passover plans, cringing at the thought of matzo sandwiches.
     Yes, I said, at Passover—which begins Monday night—the bread gets tucked away, a minor deprivation to help remind him of the carnival of plenty that is his life. Just at that moment Kitty, our little bichon frise/shih tzu mix, squirmed. 

     What about the dog?
     Pets are of course freed from observing the strictures of faith. But I'm a big believer in checking stuff, as opposed to just guessing.
     So off to the Talmud—the rabbinic commentary over Jewish law and teachings, compiled over centuries. It runs more than 6,000 pages and contains a surprising amount about dogs. Though of course, given the nature of rabbinic debate, what it contains is often disputatious and contradictory.
     Rabbi Natan, for instance, insists raising an "evil dog" violates the principles of Torah. Rabbi Yaakov Emden interprets this to mean that all dogs are forbidden, being not only evil but the sort of thing that gentiles waste their time on. Other rabbis argue there is no prohibition against all dogs, but only against those dogs that are evil. The rabbis then fall to arguing over what an evil dog might be—barking and/or biting seem to be factors.
     Nor is the Talmud silent on feeding pets, using a verse in Deuteronomy to insist that— Rabbi Emden notwithstanding—you must feed your dogs before you feed yourself.
     But what the Talmud says and what Jews actually do can be entirely different matters, so I consulted an oracle far outstripping the Talmud in both size and scope—Google. Plug in "Kosher dog food" and the first site that pops up is for Evanger's Dog and Cat Food Company of Wheeling, Ill.
     "It's a family business," said Brett Sher, whose parents bought it in 2002. The company was started in 1935 by Dr. Fred Evanger, who raised Great Danes.
     "He wanted high-quality pet food for his dogs," said Sher. "That's where it all started."
     The factory is still in the barn that Evanger converted in 1935—though it is moving to Markham within three months.
     "We are the only family-owned cannery making pet food in the United States," he said, emphasizing how they like to buy produce and meat from the Chicago area.
     "Most of our raw materials are from Chicago," Sher said. "Ninety percent are from within 50 miles of the plant." They have 80 employees, and sell pet food in 5,000 stores nationwide and around the world.
     Evanger's offers exotic fare like "Duck & Sweet Potato Dinner" and "Grain Free Pheasant." They sell pet food made of buffalo, of rabbit, of wild salmon—and of pork, a big seller in Israel, ironically. A reminder that the products are not "Kosher"—not made from approved animals slaughtered in a supervised, ritual way—but rather "Kosher for Passover," meaning they don't contain certain grains or milk products.
    "We do have a rabbi who comes in, unannounced, and does an inspection to make sure we're not using chametz," said Sher.  
     "Chametz" means grains prohibited during Passover. The issue is not what the dog can eat, but what can be kept in the owner's house. During Passover, observant Jews rid their homes of all chametz, and most dog food contains grain. (Ironically, non-grain pork dog food can be kept in an observant Jew's home at Passover while bread cannot).
     Families sometimes resort to symbolically selling their pets and pet food to the neighbors, a traditional dodge, or even boarding pets during the holiday. Or there's Evanger's.
     "This way the dog can eat with the family rather than eating outside," Sher said. "It takes the hassle out of all that."
     It wouldn't make much business sense to sell products only useful for a week in the spring, and then only to Jews. But many pets have gluten issues, plus there's a cachet to the word "Kosher," even in places like Japan.
     "They think it's healthier so they love it," said Holly Sher, Brett's mother. "Overseas, they like it." Chicago customers like it too.
     "The Kosher for Passover is a large selling point for some people," said Travis Thomas, owner of Wigglyville pet boutique — Evanger's isn't sold by chains, just independents.
     It is God, in the book of Exodus, who orders Jews not to have bread in their homes during Passover: "Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses."
     There is another passage in Exodus that I was surprised the Talmudic rabbis didn't pick up on: "But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue," God says in 11:7. Now maybe the Lord was referring exclusively to Egyptian dogs. But I think the argument could be made that God was recognizing and accepting the presence of all dogs. Which, thanks to Evanger's, can be fed right next to the pious Seder table.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 24, 2013

Friday, April 22, 2016

When it comes to Rauner, the plain truth is bad enough

     Karen Lewis used to do standup at the Woodlawn Tap.

     Before she was a teacher, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union briefly wanted to be a comedian.

     She still has a tendency to let loose with both barrels, like Wednesday, when she called Gov. Bruce Rauner "a new ISIS recruit" in front of the City Club.

     I winced, because the truth about Rauner is bad enough: our most rigid and immoral governor in living memory, who not only did not accomplish anything he said he would, but, indulging in the extremism that has brought the Republican Party to the edge of ruin, turned his standoff with House Speaker Mike Madigan into statewide paralysis, hurting thousands of the most vulnerable Illinoisans and truly damaging the state's vital institutions.

     Just say that. No need to drag in terrorism. Wild exaggeration is a tactic of the weak, the Occupy movement vilifying a system they haven't the foggiest notion of how to actually change. Comparing Rauner to ISIS doesn't hurt him — he's the most don't-give-a-damn politician I've ever encountered, well, except for Madigan, which is what makes their faceoff so maddening. If they were a pair of dogs with their jaws locked on each other, we could turn a hose on them.

    As it is, all we can do is wait. So I understand Lewis' frustration...

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Our mediocrity is reflected on our money

August Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece

     It was Napoleon who said, "If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna."
     Meaning, don't be half-assed. Don't do things part way. Finish the job.
     Like the U.S. Treasury Department taking Andrew Jackson off the front of the $20 bill and, in the same smooth motion, putting him on the back.
     Weenies. Really. If we wake up one day and we're a province of China, it'll be because we're not bold enough to change the person on our currency every century.
     Jackson has been on the twenty since 1928.
     I should show my hand here.
     I was a coin collector, which means also a currency collector, a little.
     That might sound timid, but you need guts to collect coins.
     To be a coin collector is to despair for America, a little.
     Because we not only know how far we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to putting something of beauty in our pockets.
    We also know how we fail to match our own legacy from eras gone by.
     We weren't always like this.
     Changing the twenty now made me think of another time when we changed the twenty—the $20 gold piece, that is. Teddy Roosevelt was president.
     "I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness," he wrote to the treasury
$10 gold piece
secretary in 1904. Roosevelt sought out August Saint-Gaudens to re-design the $10 and $20 gold pieces, leading perhaps the most beautiful coins ever produced by this or any country.
     I'm not one of those complaining that Tubman somehow isn't worthy—she does seem a bit of a flat historical figure at this point, veiled in semi-myth, like Johnny Appleseed. But that could be my own ignorance of her history. She was a real person, who did real acts of heroism to free slaves, and I get the need to nod in the direction of women and African-Americans, though were I them, I might be miffed at the tininess of the gesture. 

     Other women will crowd the backs of smaller denominations: Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. peaking out from the back of the $10, Marian Anderson singing on the back of the $5.
     What they should have done is exiled the lot—Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, et al—for a decade, ushered the women onto the front of all the bills. Then we could bring the presidents back, or not , in 2027. 
    But that would be bold. And people might complain. Hence these half-measures, these mincing semi-honors.  Stealthily stealing into one suburb of Vienna.
     What kills me most is they're keeping Jackson, on the back, in some capacity, a craven surrender to the idea that we can't change anything decisively. The heart breaks.
     Yes, there are more important things, as day by day, year by year, the United States sinks into frozen decrepitude. But the money is a symbol of our paralysis. In a functioning country, it wouldn't be such a big honking deal to change the face on currency, because we'd have new money every decade or two.
     Not this country. Tiny interests are the tail that wags the dog. So rather than irk the change-counting machine industry—yes, such a thing exists—we keep the penny, while aversion to change of any sort inspires us to keep its Lincoln design which, by the way, first appeared in 1909. We've seen it plenty.

     I won't rave on about the ugliness of our coinage. I'd rather see a sharp bas relief of Donald Trump on the quarter than the bland profile of Washington we've been looking at since 1932. Although maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. I'm thinking what kind of currency, what kind of coinage, a dynamic nation striding into the future would have. Maybe these ugly coins and outdated bills, and incremental half changes are exactly what we deserve. 

Sam Adams brewer crafts full-bodied prose

     In a man's life, there are many beers. Sloshed into red plastic cups or sipped out of icy cans, they blur into one frothy river of suds.
     But I clearly remember my first bottle of Sam Adams, though I drank it 31 years ago this month.
     I was visiting a former college roommate, Didier, in Boston. Di is Belgian, and Belgians know beer. He had already introduced me to Chimey, the Trappist ale.
     We found ourselves at a campus hangout, Grendel's Den.
     "You have to try this new beer," he said.
     We ordered Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which had gone on sale the month before, the pipe dream of a sixth generation brewer.
     Not too dark, like Guinness, a bite, but not too much. It tasted like ...

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hatred is stupid

     We're getting into the hateful part of April.
     We just passed the anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing.
      Today is the anniversary of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 
     And tomorrow is the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School and, perhaps not coincidentally, Hitler's birthday. 
     Which brings to mind an old saying...
     I actually try not to use old sayings.
     As a writer, I try to conjure up fresh stuff.
     But there's one that's so true, and, unfortunately, so handy, it deserves mention:
     "Hate is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die."
     That's it, in a nutshell (one reason to avoid old sayings: one leads to another). I thought of it, again last week, when I was hearing on Twitter from Mississippi's Neo-Nazi community, who were upset when I compared their hate-based philosophy to ISIS's. 
      Instead of responding—what would be the point?—I would look at their Twitter pages. Considering the source (a cliche more than a saying) with graphics straight out of Julius Streicher's Der Stermer. I reported a few that were over-the-top to the authorities at Twitter and, to my surprise and satisfaction, Twitter took a few of the most hateful pages down.
     I didn't chat too much with the White Supremacists because "you can't fix stupid," another useful saying—but if I did, I would tell them, "This Hitler you so love. This Nazi stuff.... You do know, it didn't work out well for the Germans."
     Five million German soldiers died in World War II, a fact that doesn't get aired much because the world withheld its sympathy from the monsters who started the war. Another half million German civilians died, unmourned, even, in a way, by the Germans themselves, who had the good sense, post-war, to be revolted by what they had done (generally; the East Germans, denied freedom of thought, never quite got it). 
     Bigotry is a form of ignorance—that isn't an aphorism, I made that up myself. And so if you don't know that people are pretty much the same, you don't know that your self-adoring worldview inspires you to do self-destructive things, and to throw away your one precious life, either focusing on the thing you hate, or in some spasm of violence. 
    Underline "self-adoring." These hateful world views are a blend of ignorance and unrestrained ego. Hegel told the Germans that Providence intended them "to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe," and, stupid and pompous, they believed him.
     The stupidity of hatred is not remarked upon enough; it should be. Otherwise, the haters have an easier time fooling   themselves that they are somewhere in the realm of the acceptable. They're not. They feel emboldened now, with Donald Trump giving the a double thumbs up, to wander into the public sphere and air their idiocy. When I would hear vicious things from White Nationalists, I'd sometimes reply, "Given the bullshit you seem to believe, who could possibly care what your opinion is?" They never reply, and I'd be tempted to think it might sink in, a little. But then, the truth has to be, if they were capable of self-assessment, they wouldn't be the way they are.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Milt Trenier is still here

Milt and Bea Trenier

    The Chez Paree is gone. The Blue Note is gone. Mister Kelly’s, Le Bistro, Birdhouse: gone, gone, gone, and forgotten, mostly.
     The performers who played there? Mickey Brant and Peggy King and Enzo Stuarti? Also gone.
     But Milt Trenier is not gone. Having played everywhere and known everybody — Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett — he’s right here, where he’s been for the past 40 years, living happily with his wife, Bea, in Skokie.
     “It’s been a very good life, a wonderful life,” said Tenier, 86, unleashing a rich, baritone “ha-ha-ha” laugh that comes to him as easily as breathing and almost as frequently. “I’m feeling good.”
     You may not remember his group, The Treniers. Their lone Top 10 hit, “Go, Go, Go” was in 1951. They were certainly famous: cameos in classic rock movies — “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Don’t Knock the Rock” — and guest spots on the top TV shows: Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson.
     Still, time passes. It’s more likely you remember his club, Milt Trenier’s Lounge, a cabaret he opened in 1977. Sammy Davis Jr. would stop by. Muhammad Ali once played the piano there. Dennis Farina was the bouncer. But Trenier closed the place in 1997...

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Titanic: stay at your station until relieved

     Friday was the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic—it snuck up on me this year. I wrote something four years ago, for the centennial, that bears repeating.
"Oh, they built the ship Titanic,
to sail the ocean blue
And they thought they built a ship
that the water couldn't go through.
But the good Lord raised his hand,
said the ship would never land.
It was sad when the great ship went down."
     Or so the version went that we sang at Camp Wise, in Chardon, Ohio, in the 1970s, a song that had been sung at summer camps for the previous 50 years, is sung still, and might very well be sung forever.
     Exactly 100 years this Sunday, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking the lives of 1,500 passengers. With a weekend sure to be dedicated to its memory, the question is: why? Why this shipwreck? What about it so resonates in the public's mind? The Lusitania, torpedoed in 1915, took 1,198 lives and is a trivia question. Nobody sings about it.
     The obvious answer is that the Titanic story has something for everybody. There is luxury and poverty, heroism and cowardice, its midnight iceberg rendezvous a payback for the boast of being "unsinkable." Movies and books keep the memory alive, as does its presence in the language—almost everybody knows what rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic means.
     As the son of a radio operator, who grew up listening to the urgent chirpings of Morse code coming out of the Hammarlund Super Pro radio receiver displayed in his den, the part of the Titanic story that always gets to me is the heroic tale of the Marconi operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride.
     As the junior radioman—he was just 22—Bride had the night shift. It was just after midnight, April 15, 1912, and he was telling Phillips to go to bed, when the captain stuck his head into the wireless room.
     "We've struck an iceberg," Captain Edward Smith said. "You better get ready to send out a call for assistance."
     Ten minutes later Smith was back, telling them to start calling for help.
     Phillips began tapping out "CQD" ­- "CQ" meant "calling all stations" and "D" meant "distress"—as well as the ship's location and call letters, "MGY."
    "He flashed away at it and we joked while he did so," Bride recalled. "All of us made light of the disaster."  
     Bride told Phillips that here was his opportunity to send an "SOS."
     "It's the new call and it may be your last chance to send it," Bride said. "We picked up first the steamship Frankfurt. We gave her our position and said we had struck an iceberg and needed assistance."
     Phillips reached the Cunard liner Carpathia. "Come at once!" he signaled. The liner replied it was 58 miles away and "coming hard." Phillips told Bride to tell the captain. "I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin," he later said. "The decks were full of scrambling men and women."
     Over the next two hours, as the ship slowly sank, Phillips kept sending out distress signals, hoping to find a closer ship— there was one, but its radio operator had gone to sleep. Bride kept tabs on what was going on outside.
     "I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck. There was a great scramble aft, and how poor Phillips worked through it, I don't know," Bride later recalled.
     Phillips suggested "with a sort of a laugh" that Bride look out and see if all the people were off in the boats, or if any boats were left. Bride found one collapsible boat left, only because the men were having an "awful time" trying to get it free. Captain Smith returned to the radio shack one last time.
     "Men," the captain said. "You have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself."
     "I looked out," Bride said. "The boat deck was awash. Phillips clung on sending and sending. He clung on for about 10 minutes, or maybe 15 minutes after the captain had released him. The water was then coming into our cabin. He was a brave man. I learned to love him that night and I suddenly felt for him a great reverence to see him standing there sticking to his work while everybody else was raging about."
     Bride returned to the collapsible boat, and was holding onto it when a wave crested over the deck and washed it away. He turned for one last look at the ship, "smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel." Bride lost hold on that boat and had to swim through the icy water to the other boats, as the band played "Autumn" on deck. Hands pulled him into another lifeboat. Phillips perished.
     For me, the Titanic radio operator story is a metaphor for life. It signals to us something about duty and perseverance in the face of difficulty. You're not the captain. You didn't design the ship. You don't own it. But you stay at your station, no matter what, tapping out your messages with all the skill you have, as long as you can, until relieved.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 13, 2012

Saturday, April 16, 2016

"A rigged, disgusting, dirty system"

     After being hectored to ignore Donald Trump, the media did just that after he lost Wisconsin to Ted Cruz.
     Suddenly the air was out of the balloon, the billionaire's mojo gone, or severely bummed out.
     For a few precious days.  But he has a way of bobbing to the surface, like the piece of ... Trump that he is. 
     So now he's back, demanding his due.
     Let's give Trump his due.
     Yes, he's leading the polls, typically double-digits over Ted Cruz, depending on the poll, which is sorta like preferring acid to poison. He's expected to rock the New York primary on Tuesday. He'll be twirling in the limelight like a prima ballerina, no doubt.
      But Trump is all hat and no cattle, as Lyndon Johnson used to say. Without forming an organization or grasping the workings of Republican primaries, he is allowing Cruz to suck up the delegates, and the GOP is plotting to yank the nomination out from under Trump's nose if he doesn't reach the magic number of 1237, the number required to win on the first ballot. So the win in New York will be hollow.  
      Which sparked an aria of complaint from Trump early last week, aimed at the media of course.
"The media itself is so dishonest. Honestly, I do wonder. I’m millions of votes ahead, which they don’t even mention, they don’t even talk about. They talk about delegates. And I’m hundreds of delegates ahead but the system is rigged, folks. It’s a rigged, disgusting dirty system. It’s a dirty system and only a nonpolitician would say it."
    The cry continued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday:
    "The only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular will," Trump wrote, sounding very much like Bernie Sanders.
     Pardon me, but boo-fuckin'-hoo.
     For a winner, Trump seems to be jumping straight from doing battle to bitching about the outcome without even going through the formality of defeat.    
     "A rigged, disgusting, dirty system"
     Well, yeah. So is international trade. So is war. So is our judicial system. So are most if not all of the problems that will land with a thump on his desk, should fate be so cruel to the United States as to allow him to be president. I don't hear Obama complaining, and he spent seven years pushing against the Confederacy of Obstructionist Idiocy who'd happily see the country fail if it means Obama fails too. Don't hear him moaning about it, though.
     What happened to win-win-win? What happened to winning so much that we'll get bored with winning? Why doesn't he just start winning right now, so we can see him winningly win his way toward the White House.
     Right. We know. Because it's all lies and bluster, lies and bluster that about 50 percent of the Republicans in this country nevertheless lap up. 
    I swear, it seems 50 percent of the country will believe anything.  Well, better be exposed as a fraud now than wait until he's elected. Which still might happen. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Chicago police aren't plagued by racism: we are.

     You know what’s happening. I know what’s happening. Do I have to say it? I guess so. It’s my job.
     OK. Here goes.
     Of course the very fact that there was a police task force is part of the well-oiled machinery of doing nothing with flair. Crisis 101 teaches you to appoint a task force, buy time, create the illusion that change is occurring, when what you are really doing is kicking the can down the road, again.
     The can tumbled to earth with a bang Wednesday in the scathing “Recommendations for Reforms” report, documenting what everybody knows, including the kind of succinct assessment that makes good headlines. “Chicago police ‘have no regard’ for lives of black people, report says” is how the Washington Post put it. And Napoleon escaped from Elba. Sorry if I’m the one to tell you.
     The Sun-Times online headline was “Racism, lack of accountability plague Chicago Police Department"...

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

"When you've see one stripper, you've seen them all"

Little Egypt

     A reader, reacting to yesterday's column about the City Council considering changing the strip club law regarding booze accused me of "dowdy puritanical moralizing." Ouch. I hope that's not the case. Maybe I didn't explain myself clearly. This column, from four years ago, might provide some background, and help explain where I'm coming from regarding this subject.

     Chicago was once home to a now vanished class of entertainer: the famous American stripper. It is where Little Egypt danced the Hoochee-Coochie, at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and where Sally Rand — who took her name from another local institution, Rand McNally — flashed her feather fans, at the 1933 Century of Progress.
     They were of course only the most notorious of an army of bump-and-grinders who once entertained at venues around the city, in the days before they were swept away leaving Chicago — singularly among major American cities — a virtual desert when it comes to strip clubs.
     Chicago's lone outpost that serves up both liquor and female flesh, VIP's on Kingsbury, last week seemed to finally survive a nearly two-decade legal effort to close it, with the city deciding it would rather get the millions of dollars in tax revenue than eliminate what had been an occasional irritation.
     When VIP's was "Thee Doll House" it had its moment of front-page infamy, when an accountant embezzled $250,000 from his firm and spent it there, somehow, a reminder that such clubs are often seen — not without reason — as fronts for prostitution, as well as invitations to organized crime. Known as "clip joints," unwary conventioneers might find themselves presented with enormous bills which, if they declined to pay, would lead to a sidewalk beating while complicit police whistled and looked the other way.
     Avoiding fleeced patrons — and to protect dancers from drunken groping — was the rational for separating liquor and striptease, and explains boozeless strip emporiums such as the Admiral Theatre on Lawrence Avenue.
     Once, though, Chicago had countless strip clubs. New Yorker critic A.J. Liebling devoted a surprising amount to this topic in his 1952 "Second City" report on Chicago.
     "There are scores of strip-tease joints," he wrote. "The performances ... are always the same, but they are invariably unpleasant. ... One of the girls, introduced as 'Mlle. Yvonne Le Vonne, straight from Paris — and I mean Paris, Illinois, ha ha,' then goes through the familiar business of removing most of her specially constructed clothes, which have none of the sexual quality of other clothes. She does this with an idiot gravity, and as a climax puts one foot on each side of the microphone shaft and does several kneebends. She then shakes herself as if she had just sat down on a spilled beer, and ends up posing on one foot, with the other leg bent behind her. After that, she comes down into the crowd to cadge a drink, but she will settle for a cigarette if only the regular customers are present. Why they are present, night after night, is their own pathologically mysterious business."
     Chicago's strip club strip — along West Madison and North Clark Street — was swept away after Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955. A man so devoted to order that he once had his limo stop to clean up after a man who dropped a newspaper on Michigan Avenue, Daley plastered the city with "Keep Chicago Clean" signs and purged it of what he considered moral sinkholes.
     The suburbs stepped in to fill the void — of course Cicero, and places like Heavenly Bodies in Elk Grove Village.
     My job has brought me to many strip clubs at one point or another, and I can't say I was terribly impressed. The Admiral was just strange — pneumatic-breasted porn stars standing on their heads. Heavenly Bodies led me to the theory — formed while chatting with a quite beautiful gal while she performed a lap dance — that men visit these places not so much to look at the women as to have the women look at them, to gain the attention of someone who normally wouldn't give them the time of day, even if it costs $10 to do so.
     Thee Doll House was simply excruciating; I was assigned to extract information from the dancers about the guy who dropped the $250,000. This proved impossible, and by the end of the second day trying, I was on the phone with my editor, begging him to pull me out of there before the boredom killed me.
     "Burlesque strippers are a great deal like elephants," Joseph Mitchell once wrote, "when you've seen one, you've seen them all."
     Speaking of "burlesque:" under that moniker an under-the-radar, steampunk-meets-stripping renaissance, of sorts, has taken place in Chicago over the past decade. Rather than relying on specific established clubs, which can attract unwanted city attention, as V.I.P.'s has learned, dancers, as they view themselves, pop up at bars, usually later at night, perform a show and then vanish.
     I met one such stripper through Facebook a year ago. We had lunch— a perfectly nice young lady, bright-eyed, ambitious, filled with lofty aspirations to art that strippers invariably embrace to masquerade the essential tawdriness of what they do. Afterward, I witnessed a late night show performed by her and a few of her friends— joined by my wife, I should probably add — thinking it might be fodder for a column. It was an energetic review, well intentioned, with a certain costumed solemnity, like the R-rated grown-up version of preschoolers putting on a pageant with bumblebees and smiling suns. I thought of the Mitchell quote, as well as the dictum, "don't take a bazooka to a flea," and never wrote anything about it.
                       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 18, 2012

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Block the booze and bosoms bill

Charles Ray, "Fall '91, 1992," The Broad, Los Angeles.

     A confession: I never quite got strip clubs. They seem so dreary and beside-the-point. (“You just haven’t gone to the right strip clubs,” growled a colleague, when I aired this theory in the newsroom, praising Indiana strip clubs with a gleam in his eye that made me want to rush out and investigate the situation. …)
     Sorry, where were we? Yes, strip clubs. Kinda like paying to go to a restaurant where they wheel the meal out, let you look at it a bit, and then return the food to the kitchen untouched. What’s the purpose of that?
     The Chicago City Council is threatening to change the city’s long-standing separation of booze and bosoms. Right now, if one of Chicago’s four strip clubs wants to have topless dancers, it can’t sell beer. Except for one club, VIP’s A Gentleman’s Club on Kingsbury, which has somehow skirted the law by paying millions of dollars in back tax in 2012. (Well, four clubs and numerous steampunk “neo-burlesque” special events that pop up at midnight shows all over town, but they dwell in the shadows, in ephemeral, quasi-legality and aldermen seem not to know about them).
     Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), chairman of the licensing committee, was sponsoring an ordinance that would allow alcohol in strip clubs. Underline “was.” In the kind of Keystone Kops confusion typical of the council, she said Tuesday she was shocked, shocked to find that her law allows full nudity. The law appears to have been written by VIP’s owner, Mitts suggested, and the alderman only glancingly acquainted herself with it before adding her support. So rather than the law being voted on Wednesday, she has clawed it back for airbrushing....

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Museum to the result ignores the cause

     John Kerry is in Hiroshima for Group of Seven talks, and on Monday toured the city's Peace Memorial Museum, becoming the first sitting secretary of state to visit the museum and take its grim journey through the dropping of the atomic bomb.
     Kerry said "everybody" should tour the museum, including President Obama, who visits Japan next month, and having toured it myself this past March, I agree with him.
     It's a somber place, by necessity, but as stark as the story it tells, of the atomic bomb exploding above Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, and the toll on the humans living below, it is also an incomplete story as well.

      You can't be a human being and not be saddened by the experience—Kerry called it "gut-wrenching." But I was also struck by the subtle dishonesty of the exhibits, which emphasize the deaths of school children over just about anything else. Again and again. Mannequins holding their tattered uniforms, photos of their injuries. It would be possible to visit the museum and miss the fact that there had been a war at all, one started by the Japanese invading Manchuria, a brutal global struggle for survival which the Americans, who were fiercely isolationist, unfortunately, were drawn into only when the Japanese attacked our base at Pearl Harbor one Sunday morning in December, 1941, killing 2,000 American servicemen.
    This is not a minor point. Though I suppose the Japanese can be forgiven for not emphasizing it, since we do such a poor job of teaching the story ourselves. Many Americans don't know we fought the Japanese in World War II, never worry about fine points like the atomic bomb. That was illustrated this week on my Facebook page, in a discussion of Germany, someone mentioned Japan's failure to come to terms with the horrors it inflicted on its neighbors in World War II. 
    "Japan is a pretty peaceful place," a woman replied, "what we did to them was horrible."
     In the discussion afterward, it turned out, she didn't know that Japan was responsible for some 10 million deaths prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb, most in China, which it invaded in 1937 and brutalized. Americans alive at the time were profoundly grateful for the bomb—85 percent approved its use, according to a Gallup Poll in September, 1945—which saved uncounted American lives — and Japanese — lives that would have been lost had we been forced to invade the island. Guilt over its use is based on anachronism: applying the values of today to the past, conveniently forgetting large swatches of history including the fact that, awful as the bombing of Hiroshima was, it did not prompt the Japanese to surrender. A second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, was required to do that.


Monday, April 11, 2016

There's a lot of that cult of personality thing going around

     Xi Jinping.
     Any idea what that means?
     Here, I’ll make it easier: A) Street slang for “Extreme Jumping,” the practice of leaping off tall buildings, cliffs, etc., in one of those flying squirrel suits while taking a video for YouTube
     B) Korean for “Sin Juniper,” a kind of gin made with radioactive juniper berries
     C) the president of the People’s Republic of China for the past three years
     Too easy, right? It’s “C,” though don’t feel bad if you guessed differently. We’re Americans, we can’t keep track with every detail in this big old globe of ours. I imagine a third of the country, if you asked them to name the leader of China, would say “Mao Zedong,” and he died in 1976.
     You’re certainly not alone.
     “I never heard of him,” Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News last September, after laboriously reading Xi’s name off a piece of paper. “I don’t know who he is.”

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