Saturday, March 31, 2018

Destroying Meigs Field

      Fifteen years already? That went by fast. When Richard M. Daley dug up Meigs Field in the dead of night, on March 31, 2003, it seemed an unhinged, illegal act, the worst thing the mayor had done during his administration—we didn't realize then just how badly he was mismanaging the city's finances, digging a hole that Chicago struggles to crawl out from to this day.
     I loved Meigs Field, and was lucky enough to take off the tiny lakefront airstrip once, in Susan Dacy's stunt biplane, to do barrel rolls and loop-de-loops over Lake Michigan.   

     This column ran in 2012. What impresses me most is that, six years ago, I'd actually phone the mayor's office to try to get his reaction on something. Now that's inconceivable, because I can't imagine him giving a candid response on any subject whatsoever, nor anybody caring if he did.

     Rahm Emanuel is a controlled, close-to-the-vest kind of guy. Despite his reputation when elected, there are no spontaneous explosions from him, alas. No colorful sputterings of public outrage for us in the media to have fun with. Especially when it comes to the various chronic urban problems created by his predecessor, the unlamented former mayor, Richard M. Daley. Emanuel has gotten quite good at addressing some inherited problem while pretending it just popped spontaneously into being, as if an act of nature, and wasn't dumped into his lap by the carelessness and folly of his old pal.
     So it was odd to see Emanuel this week seem to defend Daley's biggest lapse while mayor: the surprise, probably illegal 2003 destruction of Meigs Field, the city's downtown airport that . . . well, why re-invent the wheel?
     "Meigs Field was an urban jewel and a unique lakefront asset that will never be replaced," the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in 2005. "As tragic as its loss was to the vibrancy of downtown Chicago, worse was the dead-of-night manner in which Mayor Daley destroyed it two years ago, without question the most extreme abuse of power he has committed in a decade and a half in office - well, as least the most extreme we know about."
     OK, OK, it was me who wrote that in the Sun-Times in 2005. But wait, we're coming to the best part:
     "Even if it were a good move—and it wasn't—he did it the wrong way. I might want an omelet for breakfast, but that doesn't mean I want Mayor Daley to break into my house and prepare it while I sleep."

 Granted, I'm an airplane fan. What man with a pulse isn't? I've always rejected the argument that you had to be a bigwig using Meigs to jet from deal to deal in order to benefit from the field. Many, particularly kids, liked to see the aircraft come and go. The terminal was a small gem of late 1950s modernism. The place had a lot of history. Going for a ride with Bill Lear, who was showing off his new Learjet, a Daily News reporter looked out his window and said that scant Meigs runway looked "like a stick of gum."
     The city has mile after mile of underutilized lakefront park, and it made no sense to destroy Meigs just to add a few hundred yards more.
     So ruining Meigs was a mistake, and Daley doing it in his I'm-the-King-of-Chicago-I-can-do-what-I-please manner made it worse.
     Time is a balm, however. Asked if digging up Meigs was the right thing to do, Emanuel initially said, "It is right, yes, on this level, this way: Meigs Field is no longer there."
     But that seemed to be saying that the ends justify the means. Whatever works, just do it.
     "I'll leave it to others to make that judgment," Emanuel continued. "I think it was the right thing to do."
     Which is it? Since I wasn't there, I thought clarification was in order. Perhaps the mayor was flustered by my colleague, Fran Spielman—a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, Front Page, honed-razor of a newspaper reporter who will cut out your heart and make you comment on it as you die. If she asked me the time, I'd start to cry. I thought, to be fair, I had better check with Emanuel's office. So he approves of Daley's most power-mad act?
     "No way, no how," his office replied.
     Well, that's a relief. So does that mean—follow-up question!—that the mayor is not laying the groundwork for his own extra-legal, unilateral acts? That he won't, oh, decide to fill in Belmont Harbor? Because really, who enjoys that? A handful of rich boaters. That's all. Why indulge them when the city could seize the lagoon and fill it in. More campground for poor kids! And the Water Tower—it really jams up the intersection. Why not pull it down in the dead of night and reassemble it south of Roosevelt Road, where congestion is not such an issue? And why go through all the bothersome hearings and preservationist thumb-sucking and hobbyhorsing that are the hallmarks of a free country, or were, when a powerful mayor can simply decide it's the best thing to do and then command his quivering underlings to see that it is done while nobody's watching?
     Again "No." Emanuel is celebrating his ill-gotten gains, but not the act that got them.
     I suppose he can't, at this point, put the airport back. Too late for that. And, looking forward, as he wants us to, transforming Northerly Island to prairie might turn out wonderful. The idea of camping there, with the stunning cityscape arrayed before you, is enticing. I'd sure give it a try, for a night.
     But I think it's too early for anyone to shrug off what happened to Meigs. It was a crime. Daley ripped up the runway while planes were still parked next to it. It cost the city more than a million dollars in fines, and sent a chill down the back of Chicagoans, or should have. The city kept re-electing the guy, and now it's got another mayor for life, whose office insists he is definitely not, no way, no how, testing the waters to see what the public will accept. Let's hope not.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 19, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2018

Chicago company makes big things that are seen but seldom noticed

Bob Doepel and Remi at Chicago Scenic Studios

     So here's the riddle:
     What business makes something big that you see all the time but seldom notice?
     These very large, custom-made products are usually unique: built once and never again. Each can cost millions of dollars only to be used briefly, sometimes just for a few hours, then thrown away.
     Hint: you don't see their work often because your attention is focused on the people in front of it.
     Give up?
     Chicago Scenic Studios creates stage sets, museum displays and the physical contours of public spaces at trade shows, conventions, parades, and at least one war.
     Their Cermak Road headquarters is an enormous, sleek industrial building, with 165,000 square feet of clean, soaring space that looks like someplace NASA would use to assemble communications satellites.
     So big, you hardly notice the 50 full-time employees.
     It was started 40 years ago by Bob Doepel, whose flat-coated retriever Remi has the run of the place.
     Born in Chicago, Doepel came out of Carnegie Mellon with a master's degree in fine arts and an interest in theater production. He started at a small theater in Lake Forest, and grew to focus more on arts than commerce.
     "So many people do trade shows, we decided we'd rather be a big fish in a smaller pond," he said. "There are not that many theatrical shops. We do a lot of environmental branding. We do a tremendous amount of museum work."
     Environmental branding?

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Beth Smith, head of the metal department at Chicago Scenic Studios, uses a water jet to cut through half-inch thick aluminum plate to make supports for a truss arch that will decorate Northwestern's April 21 Starry Night gala. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Hospitals are too cheap to train nurses to care for rape victims

     The myth is that if only people knew about a particular problem, it would be halfway solved.
     The reality is that the status quo has an inertia, that change is hard, and outrage tends to fade.
     The Tribune ran an article this week about how few nurses in Illinois are trained to handle rape kits. I read it with interest, because I wrote a similar article six years ago. It isn't the sort of piece I usually write, but the issue is particularly galling, and the attorney general's office was unusually helpful—Lisa Madigan wanted this fixed. The paper gave it prominent play. Maybe the Tribune will have better success in lighting a fire under the public and the medical profession. But I'm not holding my breath.

     After Katie Feifer was raped at knifepoint by a man who pushed his way into her Oak Park home, her assailant tied her up in the basement and left.
     She freed herself and called police, who took her to the emergency room at West Suburban Hospital.
     "It's funny how vivid the memories are, even after all these years," Feifer says of her treatment after the 1988 attack. "A resident came in, and had this rape kit, and started opening envelopes and vials. He was fumbling around and he was very, very nervous. He did a pelvic exam, and kept apologizing. 'I'm sorry I have to do this. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.'
     "I remember feeling I had to comfort him and make him feel OK. This guy was supposed to be examining me and helping me, and he didn't know what he was doing."
     There is no shortage of jarring rape statistics.
     Illinois State Police data reported 5,300 rapes statewide last year—more than 14 a day—though experts believe the actual number is triple that. Most go unreported, in part because the majority of rape victims are children—54 percent, according to the Illinois Attorney General's office.
     Another reason rapes go unreported is that the process of seeking medical care after a rape can itself be traumatic, since the vast majority of nurses at most hospitals fail to undergo the training needed to properly treat a rape victim.
     Even though in Illinois such training is free through a program called SANE, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, a course designed to teach nurses to handle sexual assault cases and make sure they are paired with victims as they arrive at the hospital.
     Of the more than 200 hospitals in Illinois, how many fully participate in the SANE program?
     "The baseline we're at is two programs, for the state, where a victim is guaranteed to have a specially trained SANE," said Shannon Liew, SANE coordinator at the Attorney General's office.
     The two are Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville and Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.
     Two hospitals and neither is in Chicago. The other 200 don't take part because the training takes too much time, and, in the hospital's view, not enough people are raped to justify the trouble.
     "There's just not a community need for it," said Michelle Ruther, emergency department nurse manager at Loyola University Medical Center's Emergency Department. The Loyola ER has 80 nurses; two have SANE training.
     "We don't get the amount of rape cases here you'd think," she said. "The program itself is nice. You go through how to talk to these people, to help with the grieving process. It's a really great program, and we'd love to have it at Loyola if they could make the requirements less stringent."
     Hospitals in other cities manage to run SANE programs.
     "Milwaukee has a SANE program, Los Angeles does, Houston does, Indianapolis does," said Liew. "The reasons we hear from hospitals is that one hospital might get 40 victims a year, and they say we can't create a program around 40 patients. I believe every single patient every single time deserves the best possible care they can at a hospital."
     The SANE training takes 40 hours: 24 in a classroom, 16 online.
    "A lot of time, to send nurses for a whole week," said Edward Gutierrez, in charge of patient care management at the adult emergency department at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "It's a huge financial commitment."
     And that is just the formal training; to be certified, a nurse needs to put in hours more of clinical training: pelvic exams, courtroom observation.
     But without training, an ER nurse who might have never administered a rape kit has to figure out what to do on the spot.
    The kits are designed to collect evidence. There are complicated instructions, and the nurse must guide the victim while she or he—10 percent of rape victims are male—disrobes over a plastic mat.
     "When you are a busy ER nurse and you are untrained, it's very difficult to read through all the instructions while you are trying to do this exam and then get through your other three or four patients," said Liew. "But that is what happens. Sometimes nurses are actually reading the instructions in front of patients, if they are untrained, or they skim the instructions and do the best they can."
     Untrained nurses contaminate evidence. They scoff at rape victims. "They literally can say things like 'I don't know if this person was really assaulted,' " said Liew.
     Training is so spotty that volunteers try to fill the gap.
     "Our advocates step in to navigate the situation," said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates, which works with 11 Chicago-area hospitals. But advocates are not trained nurses.
     "Having a SANE nurse is extremely important," Majmuder said, pointing out that not only is the nurse treating the patient before them, but also is gathering evidence that could help prevent future rapes.
     "It's connected to overall public safety," she said. "It really does make a difference when it comes to the criminal justice piece, absolutely. The SANEs are in a position to make sure the kit is completed. They're available as an expert witness, to testify. How victims are responded to makes a difference in what victims do, whether or not they choose to report the rape to the police."
     "SANEs are seen as that critical link between the survivor and putting forward a case, because you are also trained to testify," said Natalie Bauer, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's office.
     The program began in Memphis in 1976. The first pilot program in Illinois started in 1999 at Carle Foundation Hospital, which still runs it.
     "One of the things a lot of hospitals have missed is that you have to have someone that coordinates the program," said Patty Metzler, SANE coordinator at Carle. "We've incorporated it into our staff, which makes a difference."
     "It takes a hospital commitment, it absolutely does," said Jody Jesse, director of emergency medicine at Condell, the other Illinois hospital in the SANE program. "The second issue many hospitals face is, you need physician support."
     Lack of this coordination keeps most of the 650 or so nurses who have had SANE training from using their skills—their hospitals don't have a system to call them when rape victims arrive.
     Metzler said that though the training takes time, SANE "actually saves the emergency department time, because when we have a sexual assault come in, we have somebody who can do it. It doesn't take hours and hours. The doctors don't have to disrupt their whole practice. Our physicians love it. Police officers love it because they know they're not going to be here for hours and hours. Our administration has supported it since 1999. We have really good results, really good feedback."
     As with any hospital that emphasizes a medical speciality, running a SANE program draws patients. Carle saw 125 rape victims last year, more than were seen by the University of Chicago Medical Center.
     "This gets repaid by the state," said Majmudar. "The Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act—SASETA—governs what the victims' rights are. One thing we run into is hospitals that didn't even realize they were supposed to comply with SASETA."
     When Lisa Madigan took office as attorney general in 2003, she began to learn more about the program.
     "It sounded like a no-brainer," Madigan said. Her first priority was getting the rape kits tested—it doesn't matter how skillfully evidence is collected if the police crime lab lets it sit unexamined for years.
     "Two years ago, we passed this bill ensuring that all rape kits are being tested by state police," said Madigan.
     Only recently has she realized how neglected the SANE program is.
     "And I'm talking to people about the training, they're giving me feedback, and they say, we need to let you know, virtually none of us become certified," Madigan said.
     Of the 650 nurses with SANE training, only 75 completed the follow-up component of clinical work and courtroom observation.
     "I was really drop-jawed in front of these nurses," said Madigan. "I said, 'You're kidding me?'"
     Last summer, the Attorney General's office announced a goal of trying to bring 15 more hospitals into the SANE program.
     The good news is that hospitals are realizing the importance of SANE. The University of Chicago plans to put the program in place.
     "This is a program we would like to start," said Gutierrez. "Our goal is to have SANE nurses on the unit 24/7. Evidence shows greater prosecution rates, more compassionate care to patients."
     "We have taken anti-violence as one of our big umbrella projects," said Vikas Ghayal, U of C's director of emergency services. "We really are taking on, as a hospital, this concept of trying to end violence in the community, and this is just one component."
     "It's really the right thing to do for these victims," said Jody Jesse. "The bottom line is hospitals, to me, have a certain commitment to their community. This is the right thing for the community."
     The man who attacked Katie Feifer was arrested within three hours, pled guilty and spent 15 years in prison. He got out, murdered a hotel worker, and is currently serving life without parole in Nevada. Feifer lives in California and is research director for The Voice and Faces Project, which encourages survivors to talk about their experiences.
     "I'm happy to talk about what was done to me," she says. "Survivors need to tell their stories in order to change public policies about rape."
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 5, 2012

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Good to be alive: Medical museums in Philly and Chicago challenge the curious

Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

      A wall of skulls. A black gangrenous hand. Many babies, pale as snow, slumped in glass jars. A wax arm showing the ravages of smallpox. A pair of desiccated children’s corpses, arms outstretched as if crucified. The skeletons of fetuses, some fantastically deformed — two tiny bodies sharing the same bulbous head — delicate as the bones of birds.    
      Yes, the Mutter Museum of The College of Surgeons of Philadelphia is ... ah ... challenging. But I had been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Barnes Foundation, the Museum of the Constitution and the Rodin Museum. I only had one morning free, and the Mutter is a short walk across the Schuylkill River from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where I was to spend the afternoon researching a story.
     "This collection would not be able to be assembled today," a guide told a tour group. "With the laws we have on the books to protect folks."
     No kidding. Nowadays, Albert Einstein would have to agree to have his brain removed from his body. But when he died in 1955, somebody just took it, cut into segments and put on slides, a collection of which are on display at the Mutter.
International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago
     The gap between a medical display and a circus side show is not very wide, as evidence by the giant skeleton posed next to the dwarf's (their term). No Bearded Lady, but there is the "Soap Lady," a saponified body dug up in Philadelphia in 1875, the body fat turned into adipocere. It was something you'd pay a quarter to see behind a tent, as well as the 70-pound ovarian cyst. Or 50 cents not to see.
     While there are coherent exhibits, such as one on Civil War battlefield injuries, the permanent displays have a randomness that adds to the unease. On the right side of a cabinet are shrunken heads; on the left, kidneys and gall bladders. Why? What's the organizing principle?
     "The cases around the walls of this gallery are somewhat organized by part of the body (genitalia to the right, internal organs to the left, for example), although the gallery also evokes a 19th century 'cabinet of curiosity,'" replied Gillian Ladley, the Mutter's media and marketing manager. "Many of the cases and displays from the museum are authentic to the museum's original opening—the museum opened in 1863, but in 1909 in this location—so that the museum itself is a historical artifact."
     Fair enough.
     We have something similar in Chicago: The International Museum of Surgical Science, 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive. I hadn't been there since 2002, so a refresher visit seemed in order. I headed over.
     The IMSS is emptier, duller, without the chamber of horrors aspect in bloom at the Mutter—no human skin tattoos, no wax faces illustrating syphilis. Just a few skulls and two fish bowls filled with gallstones.
     That said, it held my interest. I particularly appreciated the iron lung, a green steel cylinder that breathed for people paralyzed by polio. I wish I could round up a village of anti-vaxxers and march them past, the way Eisenhower forced German citizens to tour nearby concentration camps at the end of World War II. This is what your ignorance leads to.
     Beside trephined skulls—skulls with holes cut in them, early surgery done by the Incas—is a fascinating display worth pointing out because it's easy to miss: a looped color movie of Peruvian doctors reproducing the technique in 1953, using 2,000-year-old obsidian saws and bronze chisels, on loan from Peru's National Museum of Archeology. The operation was a success.
     The two museums left me with a pair of thoughts:
     First, we should be very, very, grateful for medical advances over the past 100 years. To have a gruesome medical condition that some pill can clear up today, not know it, and instead die — or, worse, see your children die — had to be a horrible thing, and the Mutter is really a memorial to that horror, preserved in formaldehyde and lovingly displayed. Appreciate medicine's advances, and fight the rise of ignorance as a social lubricant.
     Second, it's really, really good not to go straight into the jar, but to be permitted our brief span in the living world. To look up with feeling at the wall of skulls and not down blindly from it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Back when Facebook was new, to me.

     Last month I sailed without comment past my 10th anniversary on Facebook — the system of course tells you. It's big on anniversaries, birthdays, anything to keep you using it, plugged in. There was something bittersweet, thinking about how much time I've dumped into that sinkhole. What could I have done instead? Learned to play the piano and well too, probably.
    That said, I have to admit, the latest data-mining scandal hasn't affected me much. I'm not sure I understand it, not sure how my "liking" Tom Waits' page somehow helped the Russians elect Trump.
     But Monday I found myself wondering what Facebook felt like when I first joined. I wandered back into the past, and found this, from a decade ago, when Facebook having 61 million members seemed a lot. 
    It was back when my column filled a page, had subheads and was 30 percent longer than it is today. The original headline was, "Trying to save Face; Don't know if social network thing will work -- but can't be a Willy Loman."


     What new consumer product puzzles Willy Loman early in Arthur Miller's 1949 masterpiece, "Death of a Salesman"?
     Whipped cheese.
     "Willy, dear," says Linda, his patient wife, trying to cheer him after an abandoned sales trip. "I got a new kind of American-type cheese today. It's whipped."
     Willy launches a tirade because he prefers Swiss. "I just thought you'd like a change," Linda implores. "I don't want a change!" he rails. "I want Swiss cheese!"
     Half a page of dialogue about other matters ensues before Willy pauses, out of the blue, to marvel: "How can they whip cheese?"
     "Salesman" has to be the most perfectly constructed play in the English language. The past and present mingle seamlessly, everything meshes together — even the lilting flute music turns out to echo the hand-carved flutes Willy's lost father sold on the prairie.
     Reading it anew, to check my memory, I was struck by the great degree that technological change is part of Willy's gathering confusion and collapse — the windshields of cars not opening as they used to, elms replaced by apartment blocks, fan belts in the new refrigerators and that wire recorder Howard, Willy's much younger boss, toys with as he fires Willy, playing meaningless bits of childish gibberish on the wonderful new machine while Willy desperately tries to talk to him, man-to-man.


     As you have gathered by now, the newspaper has sent its columnists, with an enthusiastic, "Everyone into the pool!" whoop, skittering into Facebook, the vast Web social interaction behemoth that is currently the bee's knees, as the kids once said.
     To be honest, I was dubious. "So we're supposed to take time away from writing for our 1.3 million readers in order to tell three or 30 or 300 people what we had for lunch?" I asked. The answer — 60 million people are on Facebook! — also had an obvious retort: maybe, but they're on 61 million different pages.
     But I try to guard against creeping Willy Loman befuddlement. "What do I do?" he despairs. Dismissing the new without trying it is a bad habit. Times surge forward, and if you don't keep up, the next thing you know you're babbling in the hall, moaning, "The woods are burning."
     So into Facebook we go. Easy as pie to set up a page. Post an old column photo. Trot out a few likes ("Master and Commander") join a few groups — fans of Dante, of Mencken, of Thurber — and then go out hunting for friends.
     Fun. Though I'm still puzzled as to how this drives people toward newspapers. If anything, it pulls them away. Reading is a leisure activity, and you only have so much time, and each minute you spend catching up on the doings of people in your network, giving them virtual pokes and backrubs, is a minute you can't be absorbing the news of the day.
     At the top of your profile, you post your status — sleeping, working, whatever — and keeping it current is a constant chore that reminds me of 10 years ago, when they introduced that Giga-Pet electronic toy and the editor-in-chief thought I should try one out.
     It was a little key-ring device, with a crude liquid crystal doggie — I called mine "Butch" —that pooped and slept and retrieved a stick. You had to play with it and you had to feed it, and if you didn't, your dog had a tendency to die. I would actually get up, out of bed, in the middle of the night, to feed the thing, lest I wake in the morning find to electronic carrion.
     Facebook has the same potential as a meaningless time sinkhole — fun at first, and then a grim responsibility as you gather your growing brood of "friends" and try to stay informed of their doings while keeping them abreast of yours.
     Some have made their pages complex menus of items — slide shows, Easter Eggs, posted gossip. You can tickle your friends, or encase them in a block of ice with your new superpowers.
     I found myself stroking Katy McDermott's cat — electronically, of course — via "Catbook" where you can create a Web world for your pets in case your own electronic world and, oh yeah, the real world, aren't quite demanding enough.
     I'd write Facebook off as a trend — this year's Giga-Pet writ large. But I wrote a column in 1983 that dismissed cell phones as an inexplicable fad, and after that I try not to predict the future.


     Let me tell you what the entire Facebook experience left me thinking: I should call Kier.
     He was my college roommate. This fall it'll be 30 years since we met. He lives with his family in Naperville, and while we all get together, from time to time, it's been a few months and a phone call is long overdue. He keeps up with me through this column, but I don't have a similar way to keep up with him, since Kier's too busy actually living his life to dangle an electronic marionette of himself on Facebook.
     Kids might like trolling the electronic sea for companionship, but my guess is most adults can hardly give their old friends the time and attention they deserve, never mind start culling hordes of new ersatz friends out of the online millions. Facebook doesn't mirror life. Co-workers who shun me in person — who blow by, averting their eyes lest they be drawn into conversation — have pledged their palhood on Facebook. It's all very curious, but then perhaps I'm treating it more seriously than it's meant to be treated.
                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 22, 2008

Monday, March 26, 2018

Can a guy with a Bronx accent be elected mayor of Chicago?

     It isn't that the mayor of Chicago can't be from New York.
     In fact, the city's first and arguably most significant mayor, William B. Ogden — who pushed for a new, disruptive technology called the railroad — was born in New York City, and six of the first 10 Chicago mayors came from New York State, part of the invasion of East Coast sharpies who rushed here to fleece the Indians and make a killing in real estate.
     But that was then. The last person elected mayor of Chicago who wasn't also born here was Anton Cermak, an immigrant from Bohemia, in 1931. (Frank Corr, who replaced Cermak for three weeks after his assassination was born in Brooklyn. But he was never elected, nor was Eugene Sawyer, from Alabama, who finished Harold Washington's term).
     Being born here matters. Chicago is called a city of neighborhoods, but that is an abbreviation. The full phrase is "Chicago, City of Neighborhoods Where You Don't Belong." So the bar is extra high for Garry McCarthy, the former superintendent of police, who announced last week he is running for mayor of Chicago even though he reveals his Bronx birthplace every time he opens his mouth.
     Remember the protracted, almost medieval, debate over whether Rahm Emanuel somehow voided his birth in Chicago by leaving for a few years to serve as chief of staff for the president of the United States? Or the claims that his roots here didn't matter because he contrived to be brought up in Wilmette?
     This is not to go all squishy over Rahm (I can't call him "Emanuel," it's awkward, like calling Elvis "Presley"), an unloved and perhaps unlovable figure whose profile has been dirt low since release of the 2015 video of 16 bullets being pumped into the prone figure of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Rahm, who at best was willfully ignorant, fired McCarthy to create the illusion of action.

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Triangle fire still burns

     The March for Our Lives was inspirational, as people across the country, mostly young, gathered Saturday to refute the culture of death that our leaders have allowed to take hold of our country.
     While it was certainly historic, it is also a reminder that change is seldom easy, and that common people ALWAYS have had to win basic human conditions under which to live by protest and action. 
     Sunday happens to be the anniversary of one of the most horrendous workplace tragedies in history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. Many of the safety changes in place today—the sort of standards threatened by the Trump administration—were put in place in the wake of the fire.
     I wrote this piece to commemorate its centennial. Note the third paragraph from the end, and remember that promising to enact change, and actually changing, are two very different things.

     At 3:40 p.m. today, Chicago time, it will be exactly 100 years to the minute since someone tossed a cigarette into a bin of scrap cloth on the 8th floor of the Asch Building on New York's Lower East Side, touching off what for the last century has been known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
      It was a Saturday, so only 600 of the usual 1,000 employees—500 women and girls and 100 men—were working. Their 12-hour shift over, they had put their street clothes on, collected their pay envelopes—$6 a week—and were waiting for the bell. Ten minutes later the place would have been empty.
     The fire raced through the eighth floor, fed by piles of lint, linen hanging on wires from the ceiling and oil stored in the open to keep the machines running. It spread to the ninth and 10th floors, sending panicked workers running to the two fire escapes. One was anchored to the outside of the building, down into the alley. The other was inside.
     The building was 11 years old, considered both "modern"—it was served by four elevators —as well as "fireproof." But the ladders between the levels of the outside escape were missing—those who fled there couldn't get down. And the doors to the inside fire escape were locked, to prevent theft.
     The first fire engine company to respond arrived in minutes, firemen dodging what at first they thought were bolts of cloth being tossed from the burning building.
     They weren't bolts of cloth, but workers leaping to escape the flames. The firemen raced to set up their ladders, but they needn't have hurried—their ladders fell 20 feet short.
     The streets filled with onlookers watching in horror as those trapped above were squeezed between burning and falling to death. Most were teenage girls from immigrant families—Italians, Russians, Germans; most "could barely speak English." The weight of the women on the back fire escape tore it from its moorings and sent it crashing into the alley, killing everyone on it.
     The crowd on the street shouted "don't jump!" but the seamstresses had little choice.
     Five girls watched from one window as the firemen tried to work a ladder to them but couldn't reach. "They leaped together," the New York Times reported the next day, "clinging to each other, with fire streaming back from their hair and dresses."
     A 13-year-old girl hung by her fingertips for three minutes from a 10th-floor ledge before dropping to her death.
     There was heroism. Three of the four elevator operators kept at their posts, making repeated runs to the smoky eighth floor, returning packed with survivors. When one operator finally fled screaming "fire!" into the street, a New York University law student took over and made four more trips before the flames destroyed the shaft.
     It was all over in half an hour—146 workers had died. Examining the charred bodies, the New York City coroner was seen "sobbing like a child." There had been warnings aplenty, which the factory owners ignored.
     "This is just the calamity I have been predicting," said the city's fire chief. "Look around everywhere; nowhere will you find fire escapes. . . . Only last Friday a manufacturer's association met on Wall Street to oppose my plan [for a] sprinkler system, as well as the additional escapes."
     That night at the morgue, another hellish scene unfolded as bereaved relatives gathered to identify loved ones, "the sobbing and shrieking mothers and wives and frantic fathers and husbands of those who had not been accounted for." Many victims, burned beyond recognition, were identified only by the heel of a shoe or the scar on a knee.
     The next day, the police at the morgue turned away many curious New Yorkers: well-dressed businessmen and groups of schoolgirls who came to "see the sights."
     Ironically, the year before, the International Ladies Garment Workers had struck the Triangle, demanding higher wages and better working conditions, the first mass strike by women in the United States. The owners promised to meet their demands, and the strike ended. No changes were made, of course—instead, one by one, those involved in the union were fired, and so were not there that fatal day, but lived to press for the reforms that came in the wake of the disaster.
     The Asch Building was indeed fireproof—largely undamaged by the fire, it stands today, part of New York University.
     Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were charged with manslaughter but acquitted. Their insurance company compensated them handsomely for their loss.

                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 25, 2011 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Visit to the woodshed

     I invariably turn down invitations to luncheons and dinners, because they're time-consuming and tedious. The food is mediocre and the speeches are so-so, especially when I am the one doing the speaking.
     But since the election of Donald Trump, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken on the role of the American Free State, filing 100 lawsuits this past year, fighting for our country's core values during the twilight of amateur despotism that is descending upon our nation's capital, and I eagerly accepted an offer to attend Friday's annual luncheon.
      No sooner had I got my name tag at the Hilton than I ran into Daniel Biss, accepting condolences from the faithful for his recent defeat in the governor's race. We chatted briefly and pleasantly—I had gone to bat for the increasingly antique notion that government should be run by people with actual experience running government. He liked that, though when I asked him to sum up how he is doing now, he moved off without a word, smiling sphinxlike.
    A minute later, heading into the ballroom, my beeline toward Table 127 put me on a collision course with J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Julianna Stratton. I could have fixed my eyes forward and hurried past, I suppose, but that seemed the way of the coward. A path I am fully able to tread. When he came by the office, I had actually flattened myself against a wall, to avoid him. 
    But you can't do that forever, and now he was the Democratic challenger. Might as well get this over with. So I slapped my best Dale Carnegie smile across my mug and headed into the woodshed to be chastised.
     "Howdy Governor," I said, shaking hands. "I hope we can put all the unpleasantness of the primaries behind us."
     Unpleasantness, I hasten to point out, emanating entirely from me, writing various uncharitable—if not unkind if not cruel—things about J.B. Pritzker simply because I sincerely believed them to be true, based on my glancing assessment of the situation and my desire not to accept the status quo.
     Malice is the coin of the realm, online, and if you are going to be in the opinion business, you'd better have a bucket of mud at the ready.
     Not all believe that, of course. Some journalists view elections as horse races, and like to bet on the winner, certainly never saying a harsh word, currying favor in the dubious theory that it increases access and authority. Or they let others do the dirty work, acting as mere conduits. Don't blame me I just report the stuff. I knew Pritzker was going to win, but bespattered him anyway, for what I considered his deficiencies. Facing the music afterward is the price you pay.
     Pritzker was good about it. He said he was surprised that I had backed Biss. I reiterated my whole experience-in-government-is-good notion, and tried to pour oil on the waters. 
     I should have mentioned that I supported him in the bugged-phone-call-to-Blago controversy, in an article in that infamous lawn jockey issue of The Reader. He hadn't said anything wrong. But it slipped my mind—these political kerfuffles are delicate as dew and evaporate with each new dawn. Instead I told him something I had told Rahm Emanuel, whom I am also highly critical of, primarily because he so often fails as a human being and as a civic leader.
    "If I stand on my chair and cheer from the start, then I'm just one Jew supporting another Jew, and it means nothing," I said. "If I'm critical initially, then it might actually have some kind of significance if I come around at the end, when it matters."
     Or words to that effect. I didn't take notes.
     "But Biss is Jewish," Pritzker observed.
     Good point. I hadn't thought of that. I took another tack.
     "You know, after I wrote a book about my father, he didn't talk to me for six months..."
      What I was trying to say is that fondness and sharp observations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That approach didn't work either. I cut to the chase.
     "You're the man standing between Illinois and four more years of Bruce Rauner." I told him, adding that I admired the brio of his acceptance speech. "If you are going to take Vienna, as Napoleon said, take Vienna."
     Here Pritzker surprised me.
     He said, in essence, that he didn't want to merely be the guy who isn't Bruce Rauner, but he wants to be elected on his own merits, and if I were more familiar with him, I might actually know what those were, and we would have to work on that.
      That impressed me, as had his acceptance speech Tuesday night. He was more forceful than on the commercials. He might not be what I had assumed him to be—a hand puppet for the various Democratic forces behind him. Pritzker surprised me by how nimble and engaged he was—every time I bumped into Rauner and tried to talk to him, to reach out, I drew back a handful of slime—and it dawned on me that I hadn't been fair to Pritzker, judging him by his TV commercials and my biases about hereditary wealth.
     I'm not the Jedi Council, I call things as I see them, but those initial impressions can be off base and can change. When I first heard the name "Barack Obama," I conjured up the image of a man in a dashiki, dark glasses and a big afro, tossing a black power salute, which was very far from the soft-spoken, clean-cut law professor who showed up in front of the editorial board.  We are all going to be stuck with J.B. Pritzker during his struggle to send Rauner back to the Land of Bad One Term Republicans, along with Peter Fitzgerald and Mark Kirk, so we might as well get to know him a little better. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

When Trump is re-elected, we'll remember "An Enemy of the People"

Tadeus Langier, Zakopane
by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Saturday evening, out on the town, we had finished dinner and were strolling to the theater. I was about to draw my wife's attention to the dead body on the sidewalk across the street, then thought better of it.
     We were on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Lake, heading to the Goodman Theatre, attempting to cross west, when we came upon the tableau. The cop standing beside the corpse gestured for us to go south instead. We took his direction. Acting on instinct, I raised my iPhone up and snapped a photo: cop, yellow tape, 7-Eleven, police SUV, and a body wrapped in a white sheet.
     It didn't take a sleuth to figure out where it came from. Balconies directly above. It was St. Patrick's Day. We had threaded our way through mobs of costumed revelers, lining up to get into places I never imagined anyone would line up to get into. Moe's? Really?
     So either suicide or tragic, booze-induced, hey-look-I-can-balance-on-this-railing accident.
     A photo wants to be shared. I considered posting it to social media, Facebook and Twitter, with a wry remark about Chicago on a Saturday night. But I immediately dismissed that idea, for a value that doesn't get touted as much as it should: because there are people other than myself, friends and family members of the man on the sidewalk. They were about to get the worst news of their lives. Why add a note of indifference if not mockery just so I can flash sardonic?
     Lately I've been thinking that people can be roughly divided into two types: those who sympathize with others and those who don't. Those who can shift their perspective away from themselves to contemplate the condition of someone else. And those whose small well of sympathy is drained dry sprinkling concern over themselves and those immediately around them.

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Night of the Living Politically Dead

"A witch carrying a child on her broom,"
by José Guadalupe Posada (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    There was considerable good news from Tuesday night's primary, so I'll limit myself to the top two. No. 1 the dispatch of Joe Berrios to the dustbin of history, just for the promise of real reform to a sinkhole of nepotism and corruption, followed closely, No. 2, by crude Republican hatemonger Jeanne Ives, who just now came blinking onto the statewide stage, underfunded and lacking a soul, and yet nearly unseated the most unpopular governor in America, Bruce Rauner, through the sheer force of her appeals to the lowest kind of fear and bigotry endemic in fearful, bigoted Red Illinois. 
    She lost, but it was a near thing, 51.4 to 48.6 percent. The Resentment Wing of the GOP promptly announced they were taking their ball and going home. Ives refused to phone Rauner to congratulate him, another small kick at civilized society and democratic traditions, the kind of scorched earth gracelessness that has come to define the party.
     “Governor Rauner can talk to himself in the mirror and look at himself and decide whether or not he’s proud of what he’s done all around, from his governorship to the way that he ran his campaign," she told fawning radical right cheerleaders Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson. "I really don’t care, to say anything to the Governor at this point, quite frankly."
     Then, asked if she'd vote for Rauner nevertheless, Ives showed must how roiled her resentments are.
     "I've said I will vote for him," she replied, her voice dripping contempt. He sucks, but he's got my vote.
      I dipped into the show to check Ives' quotes and, as usual with conservative radio, it was an earful of malice and self-immolation.
      "You want the Rauner Republican party, you can have it," said Proft. "Bumbling idiots, cowards and sell-outs."
      Every bullfrog tries to puff himself up into something bigger, but it had a whiff of truth when callers suggested they represented an army of fellow Illinoisans who find Bruce Rauner too much of a hippy-dippy liberal to bother voting. 
     "They're not going to get anybody out to vote now that Jeanne lost," said Joe from Mnooka.
     Some couldn't bear the prospect of surrendering just because they lost.
     "Why are we talking like this is over?" said Nicole from Bourbonnais. "Why aren't we talking about a write-in campaign? We shouldn't be giving up. There's still enough of us left that say, 'No matter what, we do not want Rauner back.'"
     We're of a mind on that one, Nicole.
    I had never listened to Proft's program before, but was the same tissue of bluster and ignorance that's de rigueur (“required by custom,” Dan) in far right talk radio. Proft was waxing on how close the primary was. then ventured: "I don't believe there's an incumbent governor who's ever lost in the primary. I don't think so."
      Umm Gov. Dan Walker in 1976, paving the way for Republican Jim Thompson. Both within human memory and kind of a big deal really, though admitted 42 years ago, and thus over the edge of the event horizon for some, apparently, vanished into the unknown, forgotten and unaccessible land of the past, next to the Here be Dragons on the mental map. 
     Ives' phone call to the station was the highlight. She predicted this is only the beginning of her tremulous hordes rising up and marching boldly back toward the lost Eden of 1950s America, where they're more comfortable.
    "The grass roots is waking up," said our latest Joan of Arc. "This is not the end."          
    Really? It sure smells like the end, both for Ives and, come November, Rauner, who will go back to being an obscure rich guy with nine houses and a heart the size of a gumball. 
     Still, if the Trump fiasco has any lesson, and it has 100, it is that confidence is risky. The wounded serpent is the most dangerous, and just as Ives clutches at the curtains and refused to leave the stage, so we can't expect Rauner to go quietly, and one hopes that J.B. Pritzker is smart enough to keep campaigning hard, to run as if he's afraid he might lose. Don't ease up just because your opponent is a political corpse being gnawed on by the cadaver from the next GOP grave.
     The Democrats shouldn't underestimate Rauner, or give up on him, even if half the Republican Party has. At least for the moment. Never underestimate the Right Wing talent for lying in order to create an effect. Give them eight months to contemplate the prospect of Gov. Pritzker, and perhaps Bruce Rauner won't look quite as loathsome as he does today. Ives' inability to see that would be in keeping with her general myopia toward all things human.
     "He's ruined his run in November already," Ives said. "We said that on the campaign trail. It's not like I was lying to anybody... He's unelectable in 2018. My husband's not going to vote for him. There's no way. He cannot be elected."
     From your lips to God's ears, Jeanne. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Heaven, with donuts.

     You know where I never, ever eat? Dunkin' Donuts. And do you know why? That's right, because their donuts suck. Puffy oversweet yeasty things, or mushy, oversweet cake. Or so I recall. It's been years years since I've put one in my mouth. My wife says their coffee is still good, but we'll have to trust her there, because I'd never event get coffee at a Dunkin' Donuts because I might accidentally order a donut while I was there. And that would be bad.
     You know where I go every time I'm in the vicinity, as if drawn in by a tractor beam, because their donuts are just the best? That's right, one of the three Huck Finn Restaurants on the Southwest Side.
     Sunday morning, we drove a young Southern cousin to Midway, so she could fly to New Orleans and deliver a chemical engineering paper. (Betcha didn't know I had a Southern cousin, eh? Well I do. A senior at Alabama. Roll Tide!)
     We had to leave at 6:15 a.m. to get there, and my wife happily volunteered to go with me. Again why? Because she is a wonderful person? A sweet and supportive wife? Certainly true.
    But that's not the reason she went. 
    Again Huck Finn's. Because while I certainly could bring donuts back, and have, she wanted to try out the full breakfast. Frankly, I'd be happy with a couple donuts, but I am flexible, particularly when it comes to ordering more food. Sure honey!
     So we went, dropped the cousin off, slid over to the Huck's at 67th and Pulaski, the place just starting to fill up, with older couples and kids still in their St. Patrick's Day gear, a lady cop at the counter and various salt-of-the-earth Chicago types in watch caps and Teamsters jackets, all reading the Sun-Times
    My wife and I shared an excellent spinach and mozzarella omelet and has browns and big fluffy pancakes and bacon and cup after cup of good hot coffee that kept coming because it's the kind of place that keeps the coffee coming. You never have to ask; it's just there. 
     After, we ordered a dozen donuts to go, mostly the old-fashioned, crispy on the outside, glorious on the inside, the variety that first drew us to Huck Finn's. A dozen's too many for two people, but they freeze well, and Edie bestowed a pair on her sister and brother-in-law, just to let them share in the wonder. (We do that kind of thing. Last week her brother delivered a pair of Victor Lezza cannoli and a pound of cookies from Elmhurst, because you really can't go to Elmhurst and not swing by Victor Lezza. It would be wrong. And then once you have some, it's selfish not to share). 
    Rarity is a blessing. I'm glad Huck Finn's is way the heck on the Southwest Side. It would be dangerous in Northbrook, and eventually might even lose its charm. The way Krispy Kreme was once exotic and special and hard-to-find, a purely Southern thing. Then one opened in New York City and in a flash they were everywhere and there was never any point to eat one because they were available in every supermarket and the mystery was gone. Scarcity is discipline for those of us who don't have any.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


     "Where's a good place to eat around here?" I asked Ed, the man at the front desk of La Reserve, a charming 1850s bed and breakfast off Rittenhouse Square. He took a pad of Post-It notes and jotted "Marathon, corner 19th & Spruce St." 
     "Take a left then a right," he said.
     A nice old section of Philadelphia, four-story brick townhouses, one after another, grand pianos spied in warmly-lit living rooms. Spires. Oval windows.
     The restaurant was at the corner, where it was supposed to be. A well-dressed older man came by walking his dog. 
     "Excuse me," I said. "Is that a good restaurant?"
     "Yes," he said. 
    "Thank you," I said, and crossed the street and went in, feeling his eyes on me, as if he were shocked that there wasn't a second part, maybe the scruffy guy in the leather coat and cap hitting him up for money. 
     The dining room was dim, and so I took my seat at the brighter bar, spread the book review on its concrete surface. A hip place. Directly across from me was the name of the bar, "MARATHON" in big white letters.
     "Do you carry non-alcoholic beer?"
     "No, we don't," she said. "How about an Arnold Palmer?"
     "Sure, thanks."
     She fussed behind the bar. I put in a plug for actually stocking non-alcoholic beer: St. Pauli Girl. Beck's. 
    "It's quite good nowadays," I said.
     "We're out of lemonade, which is too bad, because it's good lemonade."
     "Water is fine." 
     I looked at the specials, the menu.
     "Can I have a dinner salad, and the pork chop?"
     "Vinaigrette all right?" 
      "Vinaigrette is fine."
     I gazed at the name of the bar a bit more. She strayed into my zone of the bar.
    "So," I said, "'Marathon. Is that the battle, the plain, the race, the song..." There is a Jacques Brel song called "Marathon"—"...or..." a thought occurring to me as I spoke, "...the gas station?"
     She looked at me.
    "I don't know. I never thought to ask."
    That sincerely surprised me, and I spoke without thinking.
     "How long have you worked here?
    "Six years."
    Had I had insulted her, by pointing out her lack of curiosity? It felt that way. That hadn't been my intention. I was just curious, not as common a sentiment as could be wished. I turned my attention back to my newspaper. How could you work there for six years and not wonder?
     The pork chop was very good—seared on the grill and drenched, I had failed to notice when ordering, in a bourbon reduction sauce, which to be honest was like a phone call from a former friend. Hey, remember me? Yes, great to hear from you, we must have lunch one of these days. Grilled Brussels sprouts, mashed sweet potatoes.  I read my paper, sipped my water with determination, and tipped well, by way of apology.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Race to the bottom: voters puzzled by primary slugfest

     "Who should I vote for? JB, Kennedy, Biss? No one impressed me at the WBEZ debate."
     I blinked at the question. Messages firehose at me all the time—on Facebook, Twitter and email, now a distant third, nearly occupying the tenuous position that letters written in blunt pencil on blue lined notebook paper once held.
     But this was coming in over iPhone Messenger, from somebody with my phone number. In the next line, he ID'ed himself. My old college roommate. Ah. 
     As a professional journalist, I couldn't summarize the 2018 primary election more eloquently than he did in 16 words. Then again, he was a political science major. Months of increasingly wild accusations, millions and millions spent on grim, black-and-white TV commercials and what are we left with? A sulfurous smell hanging in the air and three not-so-appealing choices. I'm not certain which of these guys to vote for and I've had long conversations with each. 
     The opening question is telling. It assumes, as I do above, that the only election of interest is the Democratic primary. That's true. (I was tempted to tease my friend with, "Aren't you a Republican by now?" But that seemed cruel). Compared to the Democratic slugfest, the Republican primary has been a muted sideshow. Or make that, freak show, starring Jeanne Ives in a tent off the midway, a lady tattooed head-to-toe with vile and shameful appeals to the bottom rung of the Republican Party, using every racist code in the book short of semaphore flag: Immigrants are murderers. Transgender people are predators.
     Who can blame anybody for tuning out this Punch and Judy show? I prefer to experience the election as a civilian, primarily through the relentless TV and radio commercials. Pritzker scored points early by swinging hard for Obamacare enrollment, his money stepping in for the delinquent Trump administration firing back at Trump's immigration slanders.The idea of a rebel stronghold in Illinois, based on emergent state power and the bottomless Pritzker fortune, is something I could get behind.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Own the sin

     All of life, never mind human existence, is a patchwork fuzz on a single rock twirling through a cosmos of such cold immensity that we can't even conceive of it. 
     Nor do we really want to. Just the opposite. Each individual tends to puff himself up as much as possible, to the limits of plausibility and beyond. We are living in the Golden Age of Grandiosity, with a rich, famous president who obviously isn't satisfied by what he has attained, preferring—no, compelled—to live in eternal yearning, fantasizing ever greater accolades for himself. 
     While Donald Trump is an extreme, we all imagine ourselves more splendid than we actually are, or ever could be. I know I do. And I hope I'm not alone. Though I believe I've gotten better in my later years. Less self-absorbed. I think giving up drinking helped. You get in the habit of seeing things clearly, or trying to.
     Yet sometimes the two systems, the old grandeur and the new realism, do clash. Such as a couple weeks ago. I popped into Target for some Skull Candy earbuds. I had lost mine—a lapse that once would have bothered me more than it does now. I'm not perfect, I'm allowed to lose stuff. 
     Trucking through the aisles, I noticed this dog food—the same dog food we haul to Petsmart on Skokie Boulevard to buy for $11.49, here for $8.99.
     My heart swelled. Wow, what a bargain! I grabbed the bag thinking, What a coup! This really makes my day!
     Then some part of me stood back, aghast, arms folded, shaking his head. Really? Finding cheaper dog food. That's your gold standard of excitement nowadays? 
     Deflating, I tossed the bag in my giant red plastic cart and pushed it guiltily away. Immediately thinking: okay, what's the point of that? Both being a petty, small change kind of guy, excited to save a couple bucks on a bag of puppy chow and being so pompous that I can't even enjoy the pleasure of doing so? Stuck between two worlds.
     Yup, that sounds about right. Own the sin, as the colonial moralists used to say. And to be honest, the reproach faded, and I was left with satisfaction, and a new place to shop for dog food. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Era of Contempt, Redux

     Never underestimate the key role that sexual panic plays in both American history and, alas, current events.  
     Whether it is a cause or an effect of our nation's endemic racism—probably both—I cannot say. But the reason races couldn't go to school together, or, even worse, share that swimming pool, was the unbearable prospect that your kids might fall in love with someone of a different race, do the nasty, causing ... oh, I don't know ... the universe to collapse upon itself, I suppose. And the reason those gays can't get married is, never forget, that their doing so just kicks the supports right out from under your own marriage. Bake a wedding cake for Brad and Steve one day, find yourself cruising the Halsted leather bars, entirely against your will, the next.
      So while I wouldn't directly credit recent advances in gay rights—particularly the unexpected, almost incredible advance of transgender Americans from shunned freaks to semi-accepted participants in the national story—with the staggering national embrace of the bolus of fraud, bullying and deceit that goes by the name Donald Trump, there must be a connection, as eloquently, if unintentionally conveyed by my new favorite reader, Alan P. Leonard of Tinley Park. 
     You might remember Mr. Leonard from last Saturday. His letter last week drew more than twice as many readers as anything else I've written over the past month. I share it now in the sincere hope that there are more to come. Frankly, I'd be a fool to offer up anything else, and if Mr. Leonard wants to continue to write to me, I will happily post his letters and split the profit I make from the blog on the days that he appears.
     This is even better than the Saturday Fun Activity, because I don't have to send out a prize to the lucky winner. Today, we all win. Enjoy.

Friday, March 16, 2018

International Home + Housewares show: ‘You put it online; if it sells, it sells’

Andy Berger
     The show is so vast, it can go so many ways. For a while, walking around, I thought I had nothing, just a bunch of random images and interviews. Then I decided to focus on dog devices. I only decided to bookend two interviews with 67-year-olds with very different views of the market after I sat down and started working. One funny aspect that I couldn't fit into the story had to do with Andy Berger's company, which I first heard, understandably enough, as "Max's International." After he corrected my error, I asked him if it was named for the Axis powers the United States fought in World War II. No, he said, he never thought of that—he thought his products were the hub the world turned on. He didn't consider the Germany, Japan, Italy definition until after the company was up and running and a lawyer pointed it out to him.

     The baby lay motionless on a green mat. I paused.
     "Brand new," said Andy Berger, owner of Axis International in Des Plaines, hurrying over. "It's remote control."
     The baby was a doll; the mat, designed to soothe fussy infants to sleep, though when Berger tried to demonstrate how it works, it didn't.
     "Might be out of batteries," he said. "A heartbeat sound, and it whooshes."
     Graco this was not. The International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place offers everything from huge corporations displaying products known the world over, to plucky entrepreneurs ballyhooing items that might not even be on the market yet.

    While I too scope out the latest — KitchenAid's "Color of the Year" is "Bird of Paradise," the love child of coral and peach — I prefer to excavate the deeper substrata of commerce.
     "I've been doing this 35 years," said Berger, 67. "My biggest hit is that tank-top hanger. Sell 'em by the thousands every week."
     The show, which ended Tuesday, lacked a certain hum.
     "The older I get the slower it seems to get," Berger agreed. "The whole market changed. There's less and less brick and mortars. It's all internet. We do so much business with companies like Amazon, Zulu. You don't even have to talk to them. You put it online; if it sells, it sells. If it doesn't, they don't care. I hardly have to travel anymore."
     That isn't good?
     "You lose that interpersonal touch," he said. "It's all automated. You try to deal with Amazon, they don't talk to anybody."

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