Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Tiny, fey, Irish, honest, quiet, otherworldly, and superb"

Gemze de Lappe, far left, leads "Oklahoma" dancers through rehearsal in 2013.

    The hardest part of my job is convincing organizations to go along with a novel idea for a story. I'll think of an angle—who tunes pianos at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? how do they feed all those fish at the Shedd Aquarium?—and then spend YEARS trying to convince someone to let me in to report it. They resist, I believe, because it isn't the precise facet they want to ballyhoo at that particular moment. But it might also have something to do with my blunt, I-must-do-this-NOW manner. I hope not.
     My relationship with the Lyric Opera of Chicago is different, unique really. They will actually invite me drop by a rehearsal and look around for some aspect that I find interesting. This takes a bit of courage on their part, as they aren't always happy about what I ultimately fix on, or the approach I take. But they tolerate my attention, and I'm grateful for that.
     The moment that best illustrates this process is when, hanging out at the rehearsals for "Oklahoma" in 2013, I noticed a tiny, white-haired woman in her 90s going over choreography with the show's dancers.
     "Who's that?" I asked. It was Gemza de Lappe, who danced in the original touring production in 1943 and kept the flame of the show alive for the next 70 years. Obviously I had my subject.
     De Lappe died a few weeks ago, without any notice in Chicago, and I thought it apt to revisit my column on her life and work, and a few photos of her, snapped, alas, from a distance with a primitive iPhone 4S. 

     When Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers were writing their first musical together, "Oklahoma!," they wanted spunky farm girl Laurey Williams to dream "a big circus ballet" that would give the audience something gorgeous to see.
     That was the plan. Until they ran into the genius of Agnes de Mille, whom they had seen choreograph Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" and tapped to create the dances for "Oklahoma!" Though it was her first major Broadway show, she told the musical icons that a lighthearted ballet was a dreadful idea.
     "People don't have dreams like that," she said. "They have anxiety dreams. It should be a dream of Laurey's terrors. Also, you have no sex in this show. Nice girls dream rather dirty dreams. They do."
     That nightmare dance is the pivotal scene in this landmark musical, which opens May 4 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. After presenting the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical "Show Boat" as part of its subscription season last year, Lyric launches its American Musical Theater Initiative, a five-year series devoted to the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein, with "Oklahoma!" Programmed outside of Lyric's regular subscription season, the American Musical Theatre works are part of the company's campaign to reach new audiences.
     In "Oklahoma!," de Mille's choreography made a dramatic break from the "one-two-three-kick" routines of earlier musicals, the first where dance and songs are not threaded together by a flimsy plot, but welded into one cohesive work of art. A masterpiece.
     "The show changed the course of musical theater, it was a watershed event," said "Oklahoma!" director Gary Griffin, who previously directed "The Merry Widow" and "The Mikado" for Lyric. "This is the first show where dance rose to the level of significant storytelling, particularly the dream ballet, an essential [element] to the story."
     And essential to dance is rehearsal. This morning, in Room 350 of the Civic Opera Building, two performers go through their paces: dancers Jenna McClintock and Stephen Hanna, the "Dream Laurey" and the "Dream Curly," under the gaze of associate choreographer Victor Wisehart and choreographer Gemze de Lappe, a wisp of an elderly woman, who leaps off a chair and hurries over to where McClintock has just curtseyed.
     "It's too ladylike!" she says, trying to import a bit of High Plains sass. "You say, 'Hey! Yeah! Mornin'!' You don't say, 'Goood mornnning.' You say ..." and she bites off the word and tosses her head: 'Mornin'!"  

With Jenna McClintock, left and Victor Wisehart, right.
     De Lappe is 91, and the last living link to the show's original choreography. The curtain rose on "Oklahoma!" on March 31, 1943; by that August, de Lappe was dancing in the national company of the smash hit.
     "It was wartime—it just rang a bell," she recalls. "Touched the whole populace of the United States."
     And not just the United States. She danced the Dream Laurey for 18 acclaimed months in London starting in 1947.
     "Tiny, fey, Irish, honest, quiet, otherworldly, and superb," one critic wrote of her dancing.
     Lyric's current cast is drawn not just from the world of opera but from musical theater: Laurey is Ashley Brown, who played Magnolia in Lyric's "Show Boat" and the title role in "Mary Poppins" on Broadway, and Curly is John Cudia, the only actor to play both the Phantom and Jean Valjean roles in the "Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables" on Broadway.
     Cudia says that the musical's historical importance, evergreen popularity—thanks in part to beloved songs such as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' "—and big, relevant themes make it perfect for the opera stage.
     "We all have things between us and what we really want," Cudia says. "Taking those journeys to get to a place of happiness and togetherness."
     While musicians can follow a score and actors a script, to make a dance really come alive requires a detail-obsessed choreographer. And de Lappe, who has been involved in so many productions of "Oklahoma!" over the years she has lost count, closely studies and then minutely adjusts every step, leap, turn, gesture, look, down to a flutter of fingertips.
     "I'm conscious of your thumb at your throat," she says after McClintock touches her larynx. "It's really just 'hauh!' That's better. Just two fingers."
     Often words fail her, and she sings, taps or shows the dancer what to do by doing it herself, imparting not only movement but attitude—a 19th century prairie shyness that 21st century dancers might not have encountered.
     "The other thing you got to work on is your hesitation," she tells McClintock. "It has to be much more big and decisive. 'Shall I? No, no. Yes!' It has to be clear as day, because otherwise ... this is not fast. This is yes, yes, yes, yes ..." De Lappe rises on her toes, a bit more with each "yes," then collapses and turns away at "no!"
     "You're a little bit undecided, so I think you should look down, and then change your mind. It's just a moment. And then go with that."
     While often emphatic, she is never harsh. There is no yelling.
     "Agnes never screamed," she says during a break. "She might be very forceful and very direct. But I never saw her get publicly angry."
     De Lappe's comments are peppered with dazzling smiles, ready praise and big hugs. She points out that David Adam Moore, who made his house debut at Lyric earlier this season as the brutish Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire," is even better in "Oklahoma!" than movie star Rod Steiger was as the menacing Jud Fry, because he has the handsomeness that would attract Laurey (he also has the physical prowess to dance Jud in the dream ballet, a part usually filled by another performer).
     This rehearsal goes on for three hours, with only the briefest of breaks. De Lappe's energy and focus never lag. Anyone who ever danced has to wonder how de Lappe has reached 91 uninjured, when many dancers a third her age find themselves hobbled.
     "They didn't force extensions and splits," she explains. "They didn't overstretch the body, like they do now."

   That's why her body is agile—that and her daily exercises—to the astonishment of dancers in the troupe, who have come into the rehearsal room to find her stretching on the barre.
     But how does she keep a fresh view of material she has worked with for nearly 70 years?
     "Well, first of all, it's very good material," she says.
     While de Lappe is trying to keep faithful to the original intent, she also understands that it must bear the imprint of whoever is performing.
     "As close to the same as possible within the freedom of the actor or dancer," she says. "You can't get a cookie-cutter copy. That has no life. You have to find the inner life of the performer and use that."
     Toward the end of the rehearsal, McClintock and Hanna run through the part they've been working on for hours, until suddenly it clicks: a smooth, frantic, graceful, hauntingly beautiful, complex yet seamless dance that brings to mind something Walter Kerr wrote after seeing de Lappe's choreography of a 1969 revival of "Oklahoma!"
     "Miss de Mille has been fortunate in having Gemze de Lappe to remember for her on this occasion. Miss de Lappe was one of the loveliest lead dancers Miss de Mille ever gave us, and the loveliness lingers in the sweetness and the shining respect with which she has restaged the numbers here."
     Yes, precisely, a fidelity to the past that nevertheless lives in the present. "Oklahoma!" has a triple history— a Prairie period piece created in the 1940s and staged in 2013, a large landscape populated with larger loves, sweetness with an undercurrent of eroticism and evil. Among the greatest American musicals, rarely performed on a stage dominated by European opera, it's the first musical where dance truly leapt into the spotlight.

                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 2013

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Donald Trump brings shame upon himself and the nation

      When you have a president who is a bully, fraud and liar, and who manifests those dismal qualities every day, if not every hour, there can be a tendency to eventually let things slide. You can't react to every new insult, to each new deception, to every lie. It's hard enough to count them. Why not save your silver bullets? Focus on the truly important stuff—like the obscene and costly giveaway that the Senate is at this moment crafting, using the tax code to funnel money away from the poor and middle class and toward the already wealthy.
      But on Wednesday morning Donald Trump set an astonishing new low, even for him, retweeting to his 43.6 million Twitter followers a trio of odious anti-Muslim videos produced by a British hate group, British First, that has a record of misleading and vile anti-Muslim propaganda.
     The three Trump shared were titled “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” “Muslim destroys a statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”

     Whether they actually show what they purport to show is not the point—a standard technique of haters is to take one jarring crime, one reprehensible person, and use it to slur an entire community.  The Klan did it. The Nazis did it. And now the president of the United States does it. It happens to be against Muslims, but in the past it was against Mexicans, women, Jews. Any group he feels he can get away with mocking for the benefit of his followers, who thrive on this kind of thing.
    Again, nothing new. More of the thoughtless hate that got him elected, that excites the third of this country who are angry, fearful, and looking for someone to blame. Who need a bogeyman to justify their fear, like the 5-year-old who asks, "If there's no monster under the bed, then why I am afraid?"
     But because we have seen it before doesn't mean we shouldn't cry out in horror now.  Trump's actions this morning are a gross betrayal of what it means to be a patriotic American, or a person of faith, or a decent human being. It makes our country more imperiled, and provides succor and encouragement to every zealot, extremist and terrorist in the world. It is unethical and dishonest, both bad policy and bad strategy. It is Trump's three major deficiencies rolled into one: a bullying fraudulent lie.
     Reaction has been swift—British Prime Minister Theresa May denounced Trump's reckless calumny as "wrong."
     “British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far-right which is the antithesis of the values that this country represents: decency tolerance and respect,” she said in a statement.    
    That is leadership. The British leader should be joined by anyone with a voice. No decent American can let it go unchallenged. Because if we do, it'll only get worse and worse. It already has gotten worse. Today's obscenity is worse than what came before, and if we don't want worse to follow, we need to make a stand. This is intolerable.  
     Donald Trump reveals, once again, the small, twisted bigot at the bottom of what he calls a soul. America is humiliated that we set such a petty, vain, cruel, brainless, hateful individual as our leader. We didn't all vote for him. But we all have him now. Denunciation is ineffectual and cold comfort, but must be done. This isn't who we are, but it's what we are becoming, unless we find a way to stop it. It is a fight every American should—no, must—commit ourselves to waging right now. Loud, strong and clear. 

Rahm stays out of the heat of CBA show kitchen

Larry Aaronson makes a point of personally inviting Rahm Emanuel. 
     "Most politicians like to be skewered at some point," said attorney Jeffrey M. Marks, producer of the Chicago Bar Association annual satiric review, which opens Thursday. "They may not be happy how we skewer them."
     Marks said that most people figure they've made it if they're being made fun of. We get senators, representatives, judges..."
     "U.S. Attorneys..." added show co-writer Cliff Berman, sitting beside Marks in Philip H. Corboy Hall on the second floor of CBA's South Loop headquarters before rehearsals Monday for "Much to Sue About Nothing!" the 94th annual bar show.
     "Governors..." added Marks.
     "Quinn came, often" said Berman.
     "Everybody wants to come," said Marks, referring to the show, now in its 94th year.
     Well, not everybody. 
     Rahm Emanuel won't be attending the show this year because he never comes. Despite being personally invited, despite the lawyer playing him, Larry Aaronson, being his third cousin, and despite the mayor being a traditional source of fodder. The first line the chorus sings is, "Another year we'll make fun of Rahm."
     The lawyerly lampoon goes back almost a century, to 1924, when the smattering of songs for the CBA's Christmas party expanded into "Christmas Spirits,' a full-length revue.
     Rahm's predecessors had it worse and took it better. Mayor William Hale Thompson became Nero in the climactic song of the 1927 show, "The Burning of Rome"

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Tony Calzaretta, playing a frustrated Prince Charles, rehearses Monday for "Much to Sue About Nothing!" the Chicago Bar Association satirical music review, which opens Thursday

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Give to The Night Ministry

Jeff Ayoub, of The Night Ministry, talks to a man sleeping on Lower Wacker Drive last Christmas.

     Ideally, you wouldn't be giving money to The Night Ministry today.
     Even though today is "Giving Tuesday," a day designated by those who care about such things full time to encourage we who rarely give these life-and-death matters a second thought to pause from our lavish and blessed lives, pause between the Feast Extravaganza and the Carnival of Gifts and remember those with nearly nothing. To extend a hand to people facing problems that on their best day dwarf ours on our worst.
     You wouldn't be giving today because, again ideally, you wouldn't have to. You'd already be giving throughout the year, either to The Night Ministry, and organizations like it, whether through money or, more valuably, through your time and efforts.
     Though really, there are no other organizations like The Night Ministry, the last threadbare safety net between thousands of Chicagoans and the abyss of homelessness, addiction, mental illness, despair and death. 
    There are other things besides money. You could, for instance, prepare a few score meals to be handed out at one of the stops of the Night Ministry's health care bus during its nightly rounds, and then show up at the appointed hour and distribute them. You could help pull off their big annual fundraising dinner or hit up prominent individuals to lend a hand. I've done all that—on certain sporadic occasions, I don't want to give the impression I'm a less selfish person than I actually am—and it feels great.
     But in a pinch, digging into your pocket will do. I''ve done that too, mostly recently on Monday, just to show how easily and painlessly it can be done. You go to the web site here.  I timed it—four minutes flat, from start to finish. Nobody is too busy to spare four minutes. The Night Ministry gives you a receipt for your records. 
     Plus a certain charitable Chicago supporter has pledged $25,000 in matching donations for Giving Tuesday—meaning every dollar you give will be doubled. So dig deep. 
     Or not so deep. Whatever you are comfortable with giving. I'll never miss the money I gave to The Night Ministry. But the person who gets my $50, maybe in the form of a care package of life's essentials, or a visit from the bus, or an asthma inhaler, or a sandwich handed over by a wide-eyed suburban volunteer  they corralled to help out, someone like my son below, will benefit enormously.


Monday, November 27, 2017

He's baaaaaaaack!!!

By Damien Hi
     Watching one zeppelin-sized media career after another go up in flames, like so many Hindenburgs exploding — fwump! fwump! fwump!— as their revolting sexual excesses are disclosed, I nevertheless felt secure. Think of it as the shy guy dividend.
     Alas, being a predatory creep isn't the only way the past can rear out of the dust and bite you.
     I was shocked last week to see someone completely unexpected back in the headlines, back on television, an accusation in human form aimed in my direction.
     No press conference, yet. No hazy, half-remembered charges. That's coming, no doubt.
The only thing to do is to be proactive, try to get ahead of the scandal.
    Todd Stroger.
     I'm innocent. I swear. Stroger is not my fault, though people at the time blamed me.
     "Even Stroger's supporters were worried in the final three weeks of the campaign as to whether African Americans were going to turn out heavily for Stroger," the Chicago Defender wrote in July 2006. "Were it not for the controversy created by Neil Steinberg's column in the Chicago Sun-Times blasting his health status, which invigorated the Black community and drove many of them to the polls, President Stroger likely would have lost."
     That was referring to Todd's father, John, and if you're wondering how boosting the chances of dad meant helping junior, well, how quickly you forget.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Piercing info; You never know what you'll find on Facebook

      I spent the long weekend getting ready for Thanksgiving, cleaning up from Thanksgiving, then puttering around the house, trying not to do or write anything. I generally kept off Facebook because when I dipped into the thing it seemed, not so much a dynamic gathering of friends and associates, but as an electronic backwater, a new way to be lonely. 
     Looking for a post for today, I jumped into the archives and put my name and "Facebook" into the search and came up with this chestnut from almost a decade ago. So long ago that I felt the need to explain what Facebook is on the first reference to it: "the social networking site." How quaint is that? Akin to saying, "I looked for a telephone, that popular communications device..."
      Well, I suppose Facebook still has its uses—Scrabble comes to mind—though it hasn't served up a topic like this one in many a year. 

     The neat thing about this job is that you never know where it will lead you.
     For instance. The Sun-Times asked us to join Facebook, the social networking site. Sure, it seemed a little one-on-one for a supposedly mass communication business. It was as if they started encouraging us to run up to anyone we saw on the street holding a copy of the Sun-Times, drape our arm around their shoulders and gush, "Hiya pal! Enjoying your newspaper?"
     But heck, if giving hundreds of strangers a little electronic hug makes them feel loved, then why not?
     Besides, it's fun. I get a few new "friends" every day, tell them it's nice to meet them, glance at their bios, and perhaps ask a question based on who they are. What's an 85-year-old man doing on Facebook? What's a mechanic do at a soda can factory? What's new at Loyola University Medical Center?
     The senior citizen didn't reply. The mechanic maintains the die punch presses. And Anne M. Dillon, as befits a media director, rattled off what's happening at the hospital: there's the study of high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and its effect upon the kidneys; the OB/GYNs are "up in arms about the prevalence of labia and clitoral piercing among young women . . . "
     Stop right there, I said. Tell me more about that high-fructose corn syrup study . . .
     Kidding. Of course I wanted to know more about labial and clitoral piercing -- because really, if I don't ask, then how are you ever going to know?
     "The concern we have is mainly trauma during the actual birth," said Sarah Wagner, a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology at Loyola. "The piercing can get in the way of the delivery of the infant, and can be traumatic to both the infant and the mother."
     She said that while patients invariably agree to remove them prior to childbirth, that with the profusion of piercings, not every prospective mother might know to do so.
     "We've definitely noticed an increase in genital piercing," she said, estimating that she has perhaps half a dozen patients in her practice who have the jewelry in their nether regions.
     "It's less than 1 percent, but it's there," she said.
     She said the biggest risk right now is getting the piercings in the first place.
     "People can have some pretty awful infections to the surrounding tissue," she said. "Infections that get deep as the bone."
     So given the risk, why do women do this? Is it a tribal sisterhood type of thing?
     "To my knowledge, they're doing it for sexual pleasure," she replied.
     Clearly, more research was called for. Experts only take you so far. I turned to help from Facebook, which did not let me down.
     "I was a freshman in college," recalled Eileen McCarthy, 23, when she and a group of her friends decided to embellish themselves.
     "Since I had my nose and tongue [pierced], they suggested to get my [genitals] pierced," she said. "I think they were joking, but I agreed to go through with it."
     She had it done at a place called Hobo's in Portsmouth, N.H.
     "It was a little painful, but not too bad," she recalled. "It was more like a little pinch. It was my least painful body piercing. I did not have any complications."
     She never told her family about the piercing --which she says she did not find particularly stimulating -- and removed it when a guy she was dating felt it was "trashy."
     McCarthy was 18 when she had the procedure done, but those in the piercing world say this is in no way limited to young women.
     "It is common for a woman who has no other body art to get a genital piercing," said Elayne Angel, a piercing pioneer who has performed the procedure 40,000 times. "I get a lot of empty-nesters, retirees, soccer moms, sorority gals."
     "Retirees?" I whispered.
     "Certainly," she answered. "I have pierced quite a few in the category of older women. They're celebrating a renewal of their sexuality."
     The author of the forthcoming book, The Piercing Bible, which Ten Speed Press is publishing next month, Angel said that piercing is a way for women to sanctify their lives.
      "There are very few rites of passage left in modern society, so people use piercings to mark passages: clean and sober times, births, deaths, marriages, all kinds of milestones," she said.
     "There are probably about as many reasons as there are piercings."
     Angel, who now lives in the Yucatan in Mexico but for years ran a piercing parlor in New Orleans, stresses the need for customers to scope out where they are having their piercings done.
     "Piercing is under-regulated, and many people piercing have little or no skill," she said. "There is no such thing as certification."
     She said that several chapters in her new book are devoted to how to select a safe piercer.
     "There are many things to check for," she said. Do they have an autoclave to sterilize their tools? Do they know how to use it? Do they perform spore tests to ensure the autoclave is at sufficient heat to kill micro-organisms?
     "It's dangerous out there," she said. "It is a break in the skin and there are risks."

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 25, 2009

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A legacy that still shines

    I never laid eyes on Harold Washington. When he died, I had been on staff at the paper eight months, but had spent that time putting out The Adviser, a weekly publication that told readers how to clean their garages and get Japanese beetles off their lawn. Nevertheless, 25 years later, I was asked to assess his legacy.

     Chicago wanted Harold, and Chicago got him, though nobody realized for how brief a time.
     Harold Washington, the beloved, the first and only, larger than life, abruptly entered death on Nov. 25, 1987—exactly 25 years ago Sunday, a span that will catch many Chicagoans by surprise, and perhaps remind them of their own uncertain date with mortality, and of course bring back a dynamic chapter in Chicago political history remembered by all, cherished by many.
     "I miss him terribly, and I think about him every day in one way or another," said Timothy Evans, now chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, but alderman for the 4th Ward during Washington's administration and his floor leader in the council. "There was certainly a huge sense of loss. The possibility of someone that brilliant and that committed to fairness, and that committed to all communities — who seemed to be the right job for the right man for the right time — and to have that taken away when the city seemed to need him most, was something I think affected people greatly."
      Even 25 years after his death, Washington still inspires a fervent reverence.
     "Harold Washington will go down in history as one of the most, if not the most, impactful mayor in the history of Chicago," said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago), an alderman when Washington was in office. "Because Harold was a visionary. He understood not only the problems that the city was confronted with, but the potential of everyday, ordinary Chicagoans that was not remotely achieved by other mayors. Harold built a coalition that completely exploded the opinion that Chicago ain't ready for reform, and built a coalition that did in fact reform Chicago. He made patronage a bygone word in this city."
     For a city that had elected 40 white men and one white woman mayor over the previous 146 years to finally put a black man in City Hall was an occasion for joy for many.
     "With blacks it was a question of group esteem," said Paul Green, professor of political science at Roosevelt University. "When Harold Washington became the first black mayor, that created an enormous sense of pride, among black people and also Hispanics, and also among good-thinking white people. He had a real deep-seated visceral impact."
     Those who had been frozen out of power delighted in having a mayor who spoke for them.
     "We are a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-language city," Washington said in his first inaugural address. "Neighborhood involvement has to take the place of the ancient, decrepit and creaking machine. City government for once in our lifetime must be made equitable and fair."
     It was not a vision that the old white machine, that still held a majority in the City Council, was eager to hear.
     "That speech that day created the 29-21 [split in the council]," said Dorothy Tillman, then alderman of the 3rd Ward, on the 10th anniversary of Washington's death. "A lot of [the white aldermen] were scrambling and running and saying, 'Uh-oh. Fairness is coming. We've got to mobilize.' "
     'Power-based' opposition
     Mobilize they did. The "Vrdolyak 29" coalesced against Washington; some of his appointees could not be seated for months, even years.
     "I think much of the opposition was power-based and not racially based," said Evans. "Maybe some people mentioned race as a way of marginalizing Harold. But I think the real issue was power, not race."
     Either way, Washington had difficulty matching his success at winning office with success at running the city.
     "Harold Washington, in my opinion, has to be divided into two parts," said Green. "Harold Washington the politician was absolutely brilliant, with the ability to win what I have called the mother of all primaries in 1983 against Richard Daley and Jane Byrne. We'll never have another cast like that, with a supporting cast like Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke, it was a rendezvous of sluggers."
     But as mayor, despite the praise of admirers, Washington was often thwarted, not only by local enemies, but by national trends.
     "He was mayor of a big city during the Reagan administration," Green said. "Anyone would have had problems. There was so little he could do, even if he had control of the council. Money was tight. The Republicans also controlled Springfield. And even when he got control, the legacy of Council Wars was there."
     After succeeding in breaking the deadlock in 1987, Washington's death seven months later left a void that the African-American community clutched at for years, assuming that a replacement would be found, that fairness demanded a return to the mayor's office they had won. Instead they were left with enticing might-have-beens.
     "He didn't live long enough as mayor, he didn't have enough time, for his vision to take root in its totality," said Rush. "Had Harold lived, you would have seen more stable communities throughout the city, rather than just having central pockets of affluence."
     "He had a style all his own," said Green. "There has never been an African-American politician in the city, including Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson Jr., to capture a moment in a phrase or feeling the way Washington could. He invented words—"hocus pocus dominocus"—but he said them so well. He had that personality, bigger than life. The man was brilliant."
     "His legacy is alive today," said Rush, "because it's the only legacy that makes sense. Richard Michael Daley borrowed immensely from the Harold playbook. Rahm Emanuel is today using Harold Washington's playbook in terms of trying to rekindle and reconnect that coalition that really represents that city as its best. President Obama right now is trying to govern using the Harold Washington playbook."
     "He was a forerunner of what would happen," said Green. "Illinois gets a lot of heat for its corruption, and Chicago's racism, but in reality, if you look at African-American leadership over the past 25 years, it's all come from Chicago. That is his greatest legacy. He begot Carol Moseley Braun for Senate. He helped create the image of Barack Obama. People forget that Cecil Partee was head of the Illinois Senate in the 1970s. The party was always crucial, and Harold Washington bled Democratic blue. He and people like Emil Jones, John Stroger, Wilson Frost - they assumed real power, and Washington was the personification of that. That's his legacy. He was the first. That to me is tremendous. A lot of people followed him, but there is only one Harold Washington."
     Evans, who was with Washington the day he died, dedicating new housing in Evans' ward, remembers traveling to China with the mayor, on their way to establish a sister city.
     "We got to Beijing, we saw how they had entombed Mao," Evans said. "We were on the square, and he said, 'We see how China's leader was remembered — I wonder how I will be remembered?' I think he'd be thrilled to know that people remember him in commitments to education — Harold Washington College; he was always committed to education as being the path to improvement in every community. The world-class library named after Harold Washington. He knew a new library was coming. He just didn't know it was going to be named after him. I think he'd like to be remembered that way."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 23, 2012

Friday, November 24, 2017

"A black day it will be for somebody"

     "Black Friday" is an odd term. The day after Thanksgiving, of course, when shoppers descend upon stores to snag discounted items and, increasingly, buy stuff on sale on-line. 
     A carnival of cut-rate consumerism then. And bargains are a good thing. So why the "black"? Historically, a black day was something bad. 
      "A black day it will be for somebody," Richard III says, waking from bad dreams to find gloom over Bosworth Field.
     Sept. 24, 1869 was called Black Friday after Jay Gould and James Fisk's attempt to corner the gold market. After hoarding gold for months, the two started dumped their gold supplies, made their profits and crashed the economy. The price of gold dropped 15 percent in minutes, the stock market crashed 20 percent in the next week, and panic ensued.
     (The Steely Dan song, "When Black Friday Comes" is roughly based on the panic, which makes sense, given the lyrics. "When Black Friday comes/I'll collect everything I'm owed/And before my friends find out/I'll be on the road.")
     In general "black" get attached to financial collapses, massacres, deadly storms—so how did it get attached to what is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year, the kick-off to the Christmas buying season?
     The generally-accepted explanation is the term was applied to post-Thanksgiving shopping in the 1950s by the Philadelphia police, who used the term to describe the angry mobs and traffic snarls created by department store sales. This situation was worse in the City of Brotherly Love, supposedly, because it also hosted the Army-Navy Football game on Thanksgiving, which in the pre-Super Bowl era was a huge event and also stretched cops thin trying to maintain order.
     The newspapers borrowed it from the police,, with the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin putting it in a headline in 1961.
    "We used it year after year," wrote Joseph P. Barrett, a police reporter for the Bulletin at the time. "Then television picked it up."
    I have no direct personal experience with Black Friday shopping. I like a sale as much as anybody, but can't see facing the crowds. My younger son needed a new coat, and we slid by Macy's Wednesday. The store was empty. "Department stores are going away next," I said to him, as we made our selection and headed to the clerk, who assured us that it had been crowded that morning. The coat was 60 percent off, savings enough for my needs.
     Usually the shopping struggles, the mobs crushing against doors, the tug-of-wars over cheap goods, is portrayed as some kind of indictment of the materialism of our society. The public, safe at home with their purchases, watches the news and tut-tuts. But with the plutocrats in control in Washington, running riot, unchecked, the way Jay Gould and James Fisk did in the Grant administration, my gut tells me that this year any Black Friday disturbances will be seen more sympathetically. Or should be viewed that way at least. With the neck of the middle class stretched, turkey-like, across a tree stump, and the Republican Congress whetting the axe, saving money and stocking up on hard goods suddenly seems blameless, even prudent. It's going to be a long winter.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Turkey day

The Kauffman family
    Unlike you, I've actually been to a turkey farm. Exactly 20 years ago, visiting the Ho-Ka Turkey Farm. 
     It was not, as you might guess, a stomach-churning experience. Just the opposite. I have a memory of the turkeys wandering about a vast, feed-speckled outdoor area. It was pleasant, or pleasant enough for turkeys anyway. 
      Ho-Ka is still in business—Robert is still there. I just missed him, when I phoned, but spoke to the third generation, Nicole. 
     Wherever you get your turkey, however you prepare it—we roast one, fry the other—hope you and yours have a Happy Thanksgiving.

     The turkeys are taller.
     Cowering together — about 1,000 hens in this particular shed, pecking at feeders, clouds of dust and dander puffing off their backs like smoke — members of the Thanksgiving 1997 graduating class at the Ho-Ka Turkey Farm, a rustic spread of 500 acres, are simply bigger birds.
     "Turkeys are taller than 10 years ago," said Robert Kauffman, owner of Ho-Ka, located near Waterman in DeKalb County, 70 miles west of Chicago.
     Consumers prefer huge turkeys, he said, and the turkey industry has been happy to oblige them. But the birds were getting so big that their legs were giving out; and a lame bird doesn't last long in the frenzy of the turkey pen.
     The solution: sturdier turkey bone structure.
     But contrary to popular opinion, no growth hormones are used to alter turkey size.
     "It's never, ever been legal to feed hormones to turkeys," said Kauffman, 38, a second-generation turkey farmer with a degree in agriculture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "The size of turkeys entirely depends on genetic selection."
     Thanksgiving is, of course, the high season for turkey producers—about 15 percent of the 300 million pounds of turkey raised nationwide each year are eaten for Thanksgiving dinner. Only 9 percent of the nation won't eat turkey this Thursday, according to the National Turkey Federation.
     Ho-Ka is named for Robert's father, Howard Kauffman, who started the farm in 1933. Ho-Ka is the largest turkey farm in Illinois, raising about 80,000 turkeys a year, from day-old chicks to full-grown birds weighing about 20 pounds at slaughter.
     Still, Ho-Ka is dwarfed by the huge turkey factories in states such as Texas, Minnesota and North Carolina.
     And unlike the giant turkey plants, Ho-Ka lets the turkeys roam outdoors, hunting grasshoppers, fighting with each other, and whiling away the 18 weeks of life they are permitted before they go under the knife.
     Turning gobbling turkeys into plucked birds ready to be sold is a lengthy process that could take the edge off your holiday appetite.
     First the birds are hung on metal racks and their throats are cut. After they bleed to death, the carcasses are scalded, the feathers removed. The windpipe and oil glands go. Then the viscera -- the heart, liver, gizzard and such -- are removed, the head and feet cut off, and the turkey is washed and packaged.
     A man in his position might not be blamed for passing up turkey tomorrow. Certainly anyone who watched the birds having their throats slit might have a qualm or two. But Kauffman's business doesn't diminish his appetite.
     "I always have turkey," he said, expressing a preference for white meat. "Thanksgiving. Christmas, Easter. . . ."

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 26, 1997

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Letters to Santa

      So I was careless when grabbing a letter from the Letters to Santa bin this year, and only when I got home did I look at it and see neat printing on Citadel stationery.
     “Santa I have been very good,” it read. “Please give me the following: one Polo Bear Ralph Lauren Tuxedo Bear Wool Sweater ($395); one Burberry Bandana in Vintage Check Cashmere ($595); one pair Lacroix LXR HD skis ($2,700), one . . . .” My gaze leapt to the bottom of the letter.
     “Oh great, I got Ken Griffin,” I groaned to my wife, referring to the richest man in Illinois.
     I liked the annual Letters to Santa program a lot more before, in the spirit of the new Congressional tax plan, it shifted from providing presents to under-privileged children to buying holiday fripperies for the wealthiest of the wealthy.
     “We better head to Neiman Marcus,” she began. “I’ll grab the credit cards . . . .”
     OK, none of the above is true. Well, except for the cruel, rob-the-humble-to-benefit-millionaires tax plan — that is all too true, unfortunately. And my being careless about selecting this year’s letters to Santa is certainly true. I took two letters, thinking that would make shopping easier: kids have a way of asking for some unobtainable thing, “The Danger Ranger Master Blaster” that sold out in September. With two letters I could fill the easier one, return the other, duty done.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


     Not everything is online.
     Over the weekend I was writing about moving into our new offices at 30 N. Racine.
     And I thought that I should give a quick run-down of where the Chicago Sun-Times has been located during its 76 year history, starting with the creation of the Chicago Sun in 1941. 
      Which raised the question of where the original Chicago Sun offices where.
      Nothing in Wikipedia. Nothing that popped out of Google Books. Nothing anywhere. I wasn't that worried because I happened to have a copy of Volume 1, No. 1 of the Sun, bought on eBay for $5. Surely, that would say. Down in the basement to retrieve it—it was in the box I thought it would be in. So far, so good.
      But the address wasn't in the paper. Not in the little box of legalese on page five, where I thought it would be. Not in the big story ballyhooing the start of publication, going over again and again about the three newsreel cameras and the radio microphones relaying the news to a grateful world, presided over by Mayor Kelly and Governor Green and not once saying where the heck this entire circus was taking place. 
     Maddening. You wanted to reach across the decades and shake them. Where is it?!?!
     Not that pawing through the Dec. 4, 1941 Sun wasn't interesting. There, on the front page of the third section: "County Pushes Plans for Its First Super Highway," news of the "first super-speed, no-intersection express highway similar to those in New York and Pennsylvania. The new road, to be known as Edens Parkway, will start at Peterson and Caldwell avenues and run north to join the Skokie road five miles south of the Lake county line."
    The new road would have two lanes in each direction.
    Interesting. But not what I was after. I must have looked online for 20 minutes and finally I thought. "Back to the paper. You must have missed it."  Indeed I did. There, in the little box on page 5 I had started at and somehow overlooked: "Published daily and Sunday at 400 West Madison Street, Chicago, Il."
     A fact which, before my story Monday, had never appeared online before, that I can tell. Not once. Nothing in Nexis. Nothing anywhere. Why would it? 
    You never know what odd question you are going to have, and where that information might hide. I did brusquely throw those card catalogue cards away, and it was honestly liberating. But it was also done by force of will, by straight-arming thought, never mind regret, the way you would drown a litter of kittens if you had to. Close your eyes and do it. 
     I'm the guy who read Nicholson Baker's book about preserving old newspaper archives, "Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper," and was outraged, and grieved along with him, cheering Baker on as he races to save the last complete bound run of the Times of London. Most to the point, I read "Discards," his 1994 (!!!!) piece in The New Yorker about the tactile and informational value of card catalogues, a plea for their preservation. Sign me up!
     When possible. The good news is we are in an age of conservation that dwarfs any in the past. The internet is the greatest library in the history of the world, bar none, and also the most permanent, or so one hopes. Preserving the past used to be an issue—it still is, but not the primary one. There is also cutting through the enormous mass of stuff we now have at our fingertips. You can't care about everything—that's a recipe for caring about nothing. You can't preserve everything. You have to pick your battles. But I am glad I held onto that first copy of the Sun. 


Monday, November 20, 2017

The Chicago Sun-Times, open for business at 30 N. Racine

    Fate is funny.
     One of her little jests was that it should be left up to me, the bookworm, whether to dump the Sun-Times library card catalog or save it.
     The cards, that is. Not the squat little wood cabinet. That I wanted to take to decorate my home office. The cards make it far heavier. I could get rid of them, lighten the load, and use the long thin drawers to store small objects.
     But that would mean trashing the labor of countless hours of work of untold librarians. A unique trove of information.
     What would you do?
     One of the many questions, logistical, emotional, almost ethical, facing moving a newspaper — two newspapers, that is, the Sun-Times and the Reader — a mile due west and five blocks south. From Wolf Point to the West Loop, as the Sun-Times moved its offices over the weekend.
     Our fifth home, by my count. Founded as the Chicago Sun in 1941 and published at 400 W. Madison. Merged with the Chicago Times in 1948 and relocated to 211 W. Wacker. Into its own modern trapezoidal gray barge at 401 N. Wabash in 1958. Then to the Apparel Center at 350 N. Orleans in 2004.
     And now, as of Sunday morning, open for business at 30 N. Racine. The result of being sold to a consortium led by former Ald. Edwin Eisendrath and paired up with another company, Answers Media, sharing their video and sound production facilities.
     A retrenchment, one might think. Survivors, into the citadel! Boil cauldrons of oil and defend the crumbling walls of professional journalism!
     The logic is clear: smaller, less centrally located office space equals lower overhead equals a better chance of survival for the newspaper (whoops, dynamic multi-platform synergistic storytelling system).

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Remembering Revell Model Kits

      Cleaning out my office last week I noticed a big blue book, "Remembering Revell Model Kits," a souvenir from my visit to the company. We'll be keeping THAT. It was on my desk at home, awaiting assignment to a bookshelf when a reader, responding to my mention of Tonka on Friday, dropped the name of Revell-Monogram. That extra nudge sent me back a decade, then a decade and a half, to this pair of columns. A chilly, wet mid-November Sunday would be perfect for building a model. If kids, you know, did that kind of thing anymore.


     For a dinky suburb, Northbrook is home to a number of big companies—Allstate, Kraft (really Northfield, but close), Crate & Barrel, Underwriters Laboratories.
     I thought, after six years of rattling around the leafy suburban paradise, I knew them all. So it was a shock to turn a corner and come face-to-face with the world headquarters of Revell-Monogram.
     Revell-Monogram is one of the largest manufacturers of plastic model kits in the world, and boys of my generation grew up carefully—or not so carefully—gluing together their battleships, fighter planes and race cars. That's how we passed the time in the days before computers.
     I would be betraying the boy I once was if I didn't arrange to spend a morning there, shown around by a pair of vice presidents, Michael Brezette (marketing) and Ed Sexton (business development).
     "This is the submarine that won the war against Japan," said Sexton, showing me into a room whose central element was a table displaying a huge plastic submarine, pennants flying. It was big; more than 4 feet long.
     "Fifty-three inches," said Brezette. "The biggest model in Revell history."
     As so often happens with military buildup, the introduction of this jumbo sub was largely due to international competition and national pride. Revell's bustling German division introduced a wildly popular U-boat there. American hobbyists howled that they needed a comparable U.S. ship for themselves. Since U-boats were much smaller than American subs, producing a model on the same scale as the U-boat produced the leviathan I saw.
     I wish I had space to relay all the fascinating stuff I learned at Revell. The company once made realistic-looking model guns. A previous sub, the USS George Washington, a Polaris guided missile submarine, got Revell into hot water in 1961 when Adm. Hyman Rickover accused the company of leaking top-secret designs to the Soviets.
     They could use that kind of publicity today—it grows harder and harder to get kids to build models, with childhood shrinking and computers filling up the hours that remain. Most of their models are sold to adults.
     "Our best customers today are adults who did it as kids," said Brezette.
     Then there's the issue of royalties. For years, automakers and aircraft companies were flattered to see their products built by the children of America. Now, with business squeezing every penny it can out of intellectual property rights, model-makers have to pony up. Royalties add about 10 percent to the price of models,making a tough market even tougher, and while Revell has given up with the car companies, it has struck on a compelling argument when it comes to military aircraft.
     "We feel this is an American issue," said Sexton. "The taxpayer has already paid for the design and development of these military aircraft—it isn't fair to ask their children to pay for them again when they make a model of these planes."
     Boeing argues—basically—that they need the fees to pay for the effort it takes to collect the fees. But with the entire U.S. modeling industry a rounding error compared with the aircraft industry, you'd think something could be worked out. A bill to ban such fees failed in Congress, previously, but has now made it out of the House and is rattling around the Senate.
     "We could really use the help of our Illinois senators," said Brezette, citing not only the 60 jobs at Revell-Monogram, but the hobby stores and toy departments they serve. "This is a David and Goliath issue."
     I hope something can be done for Revell-Monogram. It's one of those places we won't miss until it's gone.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 3, 2006

Update: In 2007 Revell-Monogram was purchased by Champaign-based Hobbico and moved its headquarters to Elk Grove Village.

Building model ships is a lost art

     I am building a model ship. This will come as a shock to my friends, who know me as one of those relentless grinds who work and work and work and, as a break, gets together with co-workers to talk about work.
     I don't know where the ship came from. A Lindberg 1/64-scale model of a U.S. Navy Torpedo Patrol Boat, still in its shrink wrap. With the commotion of packing for our move, it must have been dislodged from whatever shelf or box where it has hidden for years. The copyright on the model box is 1976. 
     My oldest son noticed the thrilling painting on the box of the PT boat bursting through a wave as its machine gunner trades bursts with a Japanese fighter.       

     "What's this?" he said. I told him. "Can we build it?" he asked.
     As a young man I was terrible at models. I haven't the patience. The glue got everywhere. I didn't read the instructions right.
     But the prime directive I try to follow when struggling through dadhood is this: Don't say no unless you have to. As unappealing as the idea of assembling this craft was, as hectic as things are, as certain as I am that the boys will destroy the model the instant it is complete, if not before, the fact is, we could do it. I said yes.
     We spread out newspaper on the dining room table. I opened the wrap on the box. I lifted the lid. I looked inside.
     Ayiiieeee! A million tiny pieces. I considered slamming the top back down, leaping up with a "Whoops boys, no boat inside" and rushing it to the trash. But I saw the expectant look on their faces. I grimly began sifting through tree after tree of plastic parts.
     Instruction one began: "Place motor 55 onto mount 56 then flatten pins with pliers as shown in sketch. Next cement and press pulley halves 12 onto motor shaft and propeller shafts 46 as shown in photo. . ."
     A few years ago, I was at the New York Toy Fair and, filled with nostalgic memories of model planes and boats, I slid over to the Revell-Monogram showroom, where I learned that models such as this one, boxes of parts that have to be meticulously glued together over hours and hours, have gone the way of the realistic toy gun. Kids no longer have the time for them. Revell-Monogram's new line of "Snap-Tite" models could be put together in about 60 seconds, without glue or paint.
     Model-building, as a child's pastime, is a fading art.
     "We get a few kids," said Gus Kaufman, co-owner of the Ship's Chandler, a Mount Prospect store devoted to model ships. "But mostly it's the older generation."
     He said when he started, in the 1970s, models were popular among the young. Then they discovered computers.
     "When it comes to using their hands now it seems they're all thumbs," he said. "Nobody wants to take the time to build something. That takes too much effort. They've got to think."
     Do they ever. Some of these instructions are as cryptic as Mayan hieroglyphics.
     Progress is maddeningly slow. Every blower, every cleat has to be glued onto the deck. The cleats are 1/4-inch long. I try to involve the boys—it's their job to pry the pieces off their trees, to dab the glue on, to hold the piece so it sets, to scramble to the floor to find the tiny hatch cover that daddy drops.
     We've been building it for a week now, and I've spent long, agonizing minutes, squinting at some oddly phrased directive, the boys gazing at me with sagging admiration.
     But they keep gazing. And I do not give up the ship. Each day, it slowly progresses. Which is the entire point of these things. A 1/64 scale model of a PT boat will not help either them or me, in and of itself. The memory of having built one, however, the dogged determination and patience needed to not do a botch job, is priceless.

                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 11, 2000

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Holding up the sky

     My friend Rob in New York City first pointed them out to me, so I think of them as a Manhattan phenomenon. Maybe they are, though they're in Chicago now in numbers.
     "Power umbrellas," he called them—those jumbo, sidewalk-spanning circular awnings that a small but significant percentage of pedestrians downtown feel obligated to carry. Golf umbrellas, migrated from the links to the city. 
    Though lately, they seem even bigger—not golf umbrellas, but patio umbrellas, practically, reflecting the bottomless desire of those with much to get more, to manifest themselves and spread out into space, endlessly. Other people are free to get out of the way.
    That might just be my perception. With the election of a bully, liar and fraud to the presidency, whose values are a nauseating mash of vanity, money worship and empty status lust, I suppose it would be natural if I got a little touchy about my fellow man laying claim to more sidewalk than is his right. 
     What if we all carried these ludicrously huge umbrellas? There would be tangles, injuries, fights. Nobody would get anywhere. They're counting on most people being happy with what we have. They always do.
     I am late to this, I know. The alarming trend was pointed out exactly a decade ago in the New York Times, in a slyly-titled "The Collapsible Colossus." 
     Time was that the regular-size umbrella, 40 inches to 48 inches in diameter, ruled the market. Now, “everybody’s moved up to a 60 and 68,” said John W. Aycock, owner of
     The article, by Micah Cohen, quotes umbrella store owners saying men—and it is invariably men—come in asking for the biggest umbrella they've got. Carelessly wielded, they cause eye injuries beside a sense of economic inferiority. 
     Now "umbrella" is an odd word. I tried to imagine where it's from, and drew a blank—Dutch? Navajo?—which is embarrassing, because, as my handy Oxford reminded, it has a familiar root: "umbra," is Latin for shade. Of course, like "penumbra," the shadow between light and dark. I knew that.
    Interestingly, the first definition has to do, not with rain, but sun, reflecting its sunny Roman roots: "A light portable screen or shade, usually circular in form and supported by a central stick or staff, used in hot countries as a protection for the head or person against the sun." That goes back to 1611. The next definition has umbrellas as "a symbol of rank or state" in some Asian and African countries—makes sense, since the person with a servant holding an umbrella over their head, blocking the sun, must be a person of rank. Only the third definition holds umbrellas up as "a portable protection against bad weather," 
    Both Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary and Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary mention sun first, though Webster goes on to point out that they are made of whalebone.
    But are these capacious canopies rude? Earlier this year, Scientific American examined the entire umbrella manners question, with "The Complexities of Using an Umbrella in New York City," by Krystal D'Costa. Most of the article examined how passersby carrying umbrellas negotiate past each other on crowded city streets. Though giant umbrellas are addressed:
The size of one's umbrella matters too: it should be proportionate to the height of the person, unless you want to draw the ire of your fellow pedestrians. A shorter person carrying a golf umbrella occupies a greater radius on the sidewalk—which is a big deal when it’s raining and people are looking to move as quickly as possible to their destinations. They also make it difficult to adhere to the subconscious rules that guide umbrella encounters. Given the berth, a golf umbrella should be lifted above oncoming traffic as a courtesy, but it may be harder to do that for a shorter person in this instance. Honestly, golf umbrellas may just generally be problematic. Even if used by a taller person, they may wind up dripping on an unsuspecting person standing on the fringes of the umbrella’s radius.
    "Ire" seems the wrong word. When I see someone lofting one of these enormous false ceilings skyward, I do not feel anger so much as amazement and a kind of sorrow. Really? 
      Envy doesn't figure into it—I can buy a golf umbrella—but honestly, think about it. Lofting one of those monsters, you are holding up far more umbrella than you need to keep yourself dry. In a sense they are reverting to their original form, as markers of status, at least to the carrier. Though an umbrella is toted around closed far more than it is held open, and when not being used a large umbrella is just dead weight—a reminder that when you try to maximize your advantage beyond what is your due, and flaunt your status, the person often most inconvenienced is yourself. 
    The titan Atlas was punished, remember, not by being condemned to hold up the earth, as he is often depicted doing, but by being forced to hold up the sky. Why someone would voluntarily condemn himself to a similar fate is a mystery. 

Rockefeller Center, New York City


Friday, November 17, 2017

Watching men watching men building buildings

Photo by Tina Sfondeles
    This was fun. Make sure you watch the video, posted on the Sun-Times web site. 

     Alex Griffiths works but doesn't get his hands dirty.
     The 40-year-old Brit has a job related to computers in the clean, abstract digital world at the 1871 high-tech business incubator at the Merchandise Mart.
     That, he said, partly explains why he paused on Orleans Street, just north of the Chicago River, one morning to gaze down into a construction pit and watch equipment digging up great mounds of mud.
     "It's fascinating to watch," said Griffiths. "This is something physical."
     Physical is the word. Six stories of basement parking being dug out of the muck at Wolf Point, the start of what will be a 60-story, $360 million tower. A big John Deere 350 excavator and a trio of smaller pieces of digging equipment look like a family of dinosaurs feeding at the edge of a swamp. Every minute or two another passerby stops to watch.
    "I think it's because we all wish we were driving one of those big backhoes," says a second man, who didn't want to be identified, a reminder that there is an element of idling to the observation of construction.
     "I don't want my kids to know I'm doing this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday," he said, puffing on a cigar.
     "See how skilled they are," he said, gesturing toward what is, in essence, a bucket brigade with heavy equipment. "You go home at the end of the day, you've accomplished something."

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