Thursday, February 28, 2019

Peering into the hole

     You ever use an outhouse? The kind with the hole, lots of graffiti, maybe a rustic wooden seat? In a national park perhaps?
     When you do, after you gird yourself for walking in, and let the door slam, as you position yourself to use the thing, particularly if you are a man and, you know, standing up, do you find yourself, even for a moment, glancing down into the hole, at the odiferous slop within? My guess is you do. It's natural. Even though you already know what's there, and even though looking is not a pleasant experience, you look anyway, just briefly. I won't speculate why.
     That's kind of my approach toward the email spam filter. I know what's there. And I generally don't look. Except for those times that I do.
     Such as after Monday's column on Michelle Obama's book, "Becoming." The comments, on my blog, on Facebook, in emails, were all of a kind. Some where, "Oh, I read that book, it was wonderful."And others were "Oh, that's quite the recommendation, I must read that." One aspect of reading the book that I couldn't fit into the column was my hope that it would help white Americans understand the black experience, an empathy gap that has existed from our country's founding and still sits like a Grand Canyon of incomprehension, only bigger and ugly.
     At the same time, New York Times columnist David Brooks did one of his periodic columns where he balances the left and right, calling for us both to respect each other and meet in the middle and create paradise. He makes some good points, about society and its shifting emphasis, while completely ignoring the glaring imbalance between left and right. Ignoring that while the left has its extremists, the right has an enormous block of hopped-up haters as solid as a granite wall and just as unyielding. Contempt is the ground they walk upon, revulsion the air they breath. I just ignore them, which is a perfect illustration of the difference. They gape in revulsion at the thing they oppose; I go on with my life.
     Between the emails and Brooks, a curiosity began to grow, a mere tickle at first, and then I found myself going through the series of clicks, calling up the stygian craphole of my spam filter to sample what is within.
     Just a brief glance.

     From Greg Soligo:
Did Michelle cover in the book how she and her thoughtful, decent husband lost their law licenses? Just asking. Neil, as a shill for the Democrats you are pathetic.  Hey, how does a President become a millionaire? Inquiring minds want to know. Next time skip the bs. Wait then you wouldn’t have a column.
    I suppose, in the name of moderation, I could have written him back that the Obamas did not lose their law licenses, that it was just another in the septic stream of lies that the right uses to cramp reality so it reflects their souls.. But what would be the point? It wouldn't affect him in the slightest, certainly, but only waste my time and encourage future communication from someone who already earned a spot in the filter for some forgotten excess.
     From Tony Zucchero, under the subject "Moochelle:"
     You libtards are still obsessed with this women. We still have to read this bullshit? All those magazine covers she was on for what ? Because she is black? Who cares if she is black or white. You care because all you libtards have is identity politics. You have a beautiful, intelligent current First Lady who speaks 5 different languages as is truly beautiful inside and out and you cannot find one magazine cover or one positive article. Hang on to your identity politics that is one of the many reasons President Donald J. TRUMP will win in a landslide in 2020. #MAGA,#Build the Wall.
    Here I broke policy and did reply:
So I take it you won’t be reading her book?
     For all the good that did.
     Had enough? More. Under the heading, "Moochelle" this, from Edward Heinz:
"You two are both alike, you hate Trump and America!!!! SNOWFLAKE"
    You get the point. Not to limit ourselves to the spam filter. There were also phone calls, such as this, from my favorite, Robert Glomb. I wish I could convey the sarcasm dripping off his voice. I should probably post a link so you can hear it, but that would take more effort than it's worth. He calls almost every time I write a column. I myself usually don't listen past the first few syllables, the contempt almost strangling the man. But in this case, for the purposes of transcription, I listened the totality of his message, which ran:
     Welllllll good morning, Mr. Steinberg, the Trump hater. So you read her book, Michelle Obama, now you think she's sitting on a pedestal. Well , for one, for a person who has to write a book about themselves, put themselves on a pedestal. As far as I'm concerned, that book is fictional. Have a wonderful day. Good bye.
     Fictional, the book he hasn't read, I feel safe assuming, and never will read. Which leads us to remember the basic point of what Michelle Obama had done to earn such violent contempt. Do I need to say it? Of course not.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ed Burke might be a loser even though he won

     Well THAT was fun. Most election nights find me heading for the door at 5 p.m., casting a wistful look at the gathering newsroom excitement. This year, our political editor asked me to write something about embattled alderman Ed Burke. The City Council's longest-serving alderman, so chatty with the press when plugging a pet cause, wouldn't talk to me leading up to the election, and his press person wouldn't even tell me where his victory party was to be located. But that information was acquired, and I grabbed a cab down to the Red Barrel, at 52nd and Archer, marched in, took a seat at the bar. But before I could say "O'Doul's," I was told this was a "private party" and given the bum's rush outside, where I bumped into sharp young Sun-Times photographer Matt Hendrickson, on his way in. I stood on the curb while he tried his luck, and after he was similarly ejected we retired to his car to warm up and strategize. The City Desk suggested I head back to the paper—we still didn't know how the vote would pan out—while Matt stayed on the scene, and a good thing too, as he eventually snapped a memorable photo of Burke's fedora, a symbol of his old school ways that will perhaps now take him to prison.  Meanwhile I hoped to get back and update the holding column I had written with the initial election results. Uber chose that moment to balk, flagging a cab on Archer didn't work, and I ended up shivering up Archer Avenue to the Orange line and hopping an 'L' to the Loop. I can't say I contributed mightily to the Sun-Times excellent Election Night coverage, but it wasn't for lack of trying. 

     Ald. Edward Burke stopped by a 14th ward polling place Tuesday morning to thank election workers. He didn't take off his raincoat. .
     "Pretty cold out there," he said, setting down a box of candy. Burke chatted for a few seconds about turnout, expected to be at a record low. Then he backed out the door.
     An Election Day ritual. But that was about all that was usual about Burke’s 13th and perhaps last aldermanic race. Accused by the government of attempted extortion, stripped of his powerful finance committee chairmanship, time may be running out for a man who has wielded clout in Chicago for half a century.
     The wonder is he lasted this long.
     On March 11 it’ll be 50 years since Burke, 75, was first elected to City Council. Typically he ran unopposed in the ward where he grew up, where his father Joe was alderman before him. This year he was challenged by Jaime Guzman and Tanya Patiño, acolytes of foe Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
     Together, Guzman and Patiño had raised less than $150,000 in the last quarterly filing. Burke had nearly $5 million, and seemed poised to cruise to victory late Tuesday.
     Still, Burke was facing one of the more significant challenges since he won a secret ballet for Democratic committeemen in 1968 by three and a half votes.
     The FBI took the warm glow off Burke’s Golden Anniversary by raiding his ward offices in November, and again in December, charging him in January with demanding that a Burger King franchise steer business to his law firm. In return, he would stop opposing the remodeling of the chain’s 4060 S. Pulaski location, the feds alleged.
     Will Burke have long to enjoy his victory?

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Election Day 2019, Part I

     Election Day in Chicago. Finally something on the political scene to be grateful for, to give thanks that the clown car that for months has been pulling up at various forums, disgorging candidates—14, count 'em, 14 on the ballot—will finally be sent to the junkyard.
     Not that it was always 14. It used to be more. In November, it was 21.  Easier to keep track of the Chicagoans who weren't running for mayor.
     Fourteen, until this evening. To be replaced by two, Godzilla and Rodan, who'll immediately set to wrestling each other, rolling around on a scale model Chicago, crushing it to flinders, metaphorically. That battle to be determined by another vote in April.
     Which two?
     While we ponder that, the New York Times had a tell-tale effort in its Monday paper. A full page, asking "a few questions" to nine of the 14 candidates.  The article was telling for a variety of reasons. First, being the Times, it never explained why these nine, and what about the other five made them not worthy of the cut.
     Second, each candidate was asked two semi-serious questions—to describe Rahm Emanuel's term in three words, and to name "Chicago's biggest challenge." Gentle pitches right down the middle. And two completely trivial questions: "Dibs or no dibs" and "Favorite Chicago skyscraper."
     Meaning that half of the questions the Times chose to present potential future mayors of Chicago the day before the election were fluff. Kinda tells you where the Gray Lady stands on Chicago. A far outer borough joke to amuse its readers on a slow news day, as comic relief from actual issues.
     For a moment I thought they also gave away the game by putting Bill Daley front and center, the favored candidate of Illinois billionaires and establishment publications in other cities. But a second look and I realized the Times lined up our would-be leader in alphabetical order, as if they were kindergartners, which does indeed make a certain sense.
     The skyscraper question—a single click removed from the classic "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"—was also telling. Garry McCarthy, Paul Vallas, and Willie Wilson picked the Hancock Building, which the Times took pains to explain was renamed "875 North Michigan" last year (who knew?)
   Amara Enyia and Susana Mendoza picked the Willis Tower, calling it the Sears Tower, of course.
   I didn't realize real people actually liked these examples of brutalist giganticism. It's like saying your favorite flavor of ice cream is "cold." But nothing should surprise in Chicago politics. Daley said the first thing I completely agree with him about, picking the charming spun sugar Venetian wedding cake of the Wrigley Building as his favorite. Hints at a soul, which is par for the course. Bill always seemed the most humanlike of the Daley clan, the Daley most likely to fog a mirror. Or maybe the Wrigley Building just tested well.
     Lori Lightfoot also picked a pair of buildings—the Wrigley Building is actually two buildings, with two different addresses, connected by a nickel sky bridge. She chose Marina Towers, which is defendable, in a retro 1960s way. Toni Preckwinkle, unable to color between the lines, picked the Cultural Center, noting its not a skyscraper. I suppose we should be glad she didn't pick pancakes, which are not a skyscraper either.
     And Gery Chico picked the Daniel Burnham's Reliance Building—to be honest, I believe he deserves to be mayor for that choice alone. Apt yet not playing to the crowds, exactly the sort of independent thinker Chicago needs as mayor.
      But I don't see Chico making today's cut. I'm normally not a fan of handicapping elections, but on my hobby blog, why not? All we can do now is wait, and the time must be passed somehow.
     One slot belongs to Bill Daley, because of the mesmeric powers that the Daley name has over Chicagoans to vote against all common sense and their best interests. That and the enormous bucket of money he collected from the billionaires whose interests he'll put above all else, while running an endless loop of TV commercials claiming what a salt-of-the-earth Chicago guy he is.
     The other ... I wish I could say Lori Lightfoot, based on the Sun-Times' powerful editorial lauding her lack of ties to the Old Guard.  But anyone young in her potential base in the African-American community would drift Enyia, thanks to the fluke of her Chance the Rapper endorsement or, if older, to Preckwinkle, whom I've said before I personally prefer, were the election up to me, which it's not.
    Mendoza has promise, and I wish I could say it would be her. But a sick feeling that just came over me now, at this second, my fingers tingling on the keyboard: it will be Gerry McCarthy, simply because a Daley-McCarthy race would be so horrible it makes sense. A cruel joke disenfranchising two-thirds of the city's population and revealing the whole system as the bald lie it certainly is.
     So that's my prediction—Daley v. McCarthy. Why? Because it's hard to go wrong in politics nowadays betting on the nightmare scenario.

Monday, February 25, 2019

“Becoming” elevates Michelle Obama to the pantheon of great American women

     News is supposed to be new; the expectation is even hidden in the word: new-s.
     So yes, I’m three months late.
     But anything can be news if you don’t know it.
    And back in November when Michelle Obama’s autobiography, “Becoming,” was published I didn’t know what I know now.
     To be honest, I barely paid attention to the book. I didn’t think much of Michelle Obama. Not that I held her in low regard, per se. Certainly nowhere near as low as the contempt expressed by right wing haters who decried every aspect of the First Lady, from her politics to her arms.
    I just didn’t think much about her. Not while her husband was a senator, when she was an offstage presence, grumbling about his political career, nagging him about smoking. Not while he was president, when she created scandals by wearing sleeveless dresses and urging kids to exercise. Not when her book came out. I clicked my tongue at her book launch for 14,000 people at the United Center, hosted by Oprah. Must be nice.  

     But it wasn’t as if I were going to read her book. Michelle Obama was not the sort of person I wanted to cozy up with. She seemed, as she herself put it in her book, a “pissed-off harpy.”
     How do I know she wrote that? Because I read the book, of course. How did that happen? I had to catch a plane. The cab was coming in 15 minutes. I needed a new audio book. Onto Audible to find something. "Becoming" was right there, a best-seller. My wife had already read the book, and while she didn't really remark upon it, that fact alone suggested it could be done. The cab was coming. I shrugged and bought it.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Flashback 1998: R. Kelly arrested for a different reason

     Last week was a good time to be a news reporter in Chicago. It was fun just to follow my young colleagues via Twitter as they raced around the city, covering the unfolding Jussie Smollett and R. Kelly cases. You could feel the excitement. I noticed some pushback from the calliope of negativity that is Twitter, as if their enthusiasm were somehow unseemly, given the cause. But if you've spent any time with ER doctors, as I have, you know that there is both an adrenalin rush when the doors burst open and patients start being rushed in, and pride afterward for doing their jobs under trying conditions. That's natural. It doesn't mean they're glad a train hit a bus.
     Watching Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch, on this story years before anybody cared, in the spotlight again, made me wonder what, if anything, I wrote about R. Kelly at the time. The sex charges get glancing reference—someone else was covering it—but I did find some interesting relics, such as this story from 1998, the year the first case R. Kelly was charged with this week took place. It was nostalgic to see myself in the herd, digging for the story, and I was proud that I talked my way onto that cop bus 

    Though to be honest, adrenalin be damned, I never liked being in those scrums of reporters, and dreamed of being where I am now, pursuing my own solitary interests at my own pace. To me, if there's another reporter where I'm working, I'm probably in the wrong place. That isn't a criticism of ferreting out news—I'm glad someone is doing it, and glad the Sun-Times does it better than anyone else. I'm also glad not to have to be the person to do it, to be free to chase the will-o-wisp of my shifting interests. I like to think when readers get exhausted with the relentless drumbeat of the news of the day, that my column drapes a chummy arm over their shoulders, draws them off to the side, offering a cup of strong coffee and a biscuit and a chance to gather their thoughts.
1972 Pontiac Grand Prix
     The power of prayer must be exaggerated. 
     I know angels and divine intervention are a hot topic now. But if prayer really worked, then a shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile launcher would have materialized in my bedroom a long time ago, so I could blast one of those blaring boom-box cars as they pass under my window at night.
     I've certainly spent enough hours in bed, staring into the darkness, listening to the throbbing music, if that is the word, pulsing from some idiot's car as it rolls slowly down the quiet North Side street where I live, usually about 2 o'clock in the morning, and wishing for that missile launcher.
     Praying for the launcher, trying to conjure it up, willing for it to appear. Imagining the joy of removing it from its military green case (I picture it packed in that fake grass they fill Easter baskets with). Throwing open the window, centering the car -- which I imagine as a low slung, 1972 Pontiac with neon light piping around the sides -- in the cross hairs as it cruises down the street, the music slamming away, "WHUMPA-WHUMPA-WHUMPA-BE-MY-LOVE-DOLL-BAY-BEE-T000-NIIIIIIIIIYIIIIIGHT!!!!-WHUMPA-WHUMPA-WHUMPA."
     I squeeze the trigger. The missile streaks from the launcher, a fiery shaft of vengeance, to the car, which explodes in a huge, slow-motion fireball, KA-BLOOOEY!; this sound, though loud, is somehow pleasant and unobjectionable. The street littered with debris. Then silence, sweet silence except for—signaling the fantasy's end—the muted sound of a few neighbors cheering.
     Or maybe I'm assuming too much, prayer-wise. Maybe God hears the missile prayer clear enough, and—for reasons neither cosmic nor mysterious—decides to let it go unanswered. Maybe he really is looking out for me.
     Either way, I unspooled the entire fantasy again last week, reading, with a good deal of deep visceral satisfaction, of the arrest of R. Kelly—a music star of some sort, apparently—for allegedly refusing a police request to turn down the volume blasting out of his car at a Clark Street night spot this week.
     Now everyone knows the proper response to a police officer asking you just about anything is "Yes, sir" (or "Yes, ma'am," as the case may be). If a cop stopped me on the street and asked me to climb a tree I'd probably be somewhere in the high branches before it occurred to me that I might want to question his (or, again, her) authority.
     This isn't because I'm a big police fan, as much as I'd like to be. After a dozen years of dealing with Chicago police on a periodic, professional level, I have a healthy respect (or is the word "fear"?) for their ability to turn nasty at a moment's notice and I wouldn't want to draw that quality down upon myself without a good reason. It isn't so much that I don't like them as they really don't seem to like me, no matter how I try to please them.
     I could cite many instances, but the one that comes to mind is the time that another singing star, Ice-T, was appearing at the Vic Theater. He had just released a song, "Cop Killer," that had inflamed the sensibilities of police officers everywhere, and our local Fraternal Order of Police decided to go down to the Vic and protest Ice-T's performance.
     This of course made perfect sense. If somebody puts a song on an album saying, basically, that an entire group of people, particularly one as generally laudable as the police, should be shot, then that group certainly can be expected to protest.
     The officers, who were off-duty, hired a few buses to ferry them from their gathering spot, the station at Belmont and Western, to the Vic.
     Being an intrepid reporter, I talked my way onto one of the buses, thinking I'd have a chance to chat with the protesting police officers on the way over.
     Big mistake. The cops were hopped up, mad, boisterous. Some were drinking, which didn't help. Ice-T wasn't on the bus, but I was, so they were mad at me, even though, to my knowledge, I'd never written a song about anyone. It was scary; I didn't get much interviewing done on the bus, but I did a lot of cringing down into my seat, trying to shrink into a small and unnoticed person.
     Things weren't much easier in front of the Vic. The TV stations were there, and one of them got some footage of an officer screaming in the face of some doughy, round guy, jamming his finger hard against that guy's forehead, saying something like: "How'd you like it if I said, 'Let's shoot you, bang, bang!' "
     I was that guy. I had just asked the officer some bland, meat-and-potatoes question about the protest, and the cop went off on a tirade. Which leads us back to R. Kelly. Maybe he was playing his music and being "loud and abusive" as the police say. He doesn't have the best track record when it comes to brushes with the law.
     But track records are a funny thing. They build up and people judge you by them, no matter the facts of a particular case. Maybe R. Kelly was guilty. Or maybe he was just a young black man sitting in an expensive car who got rousted for no other reason. Those things happen, and while they still surprise me -- I am the kind of person who clings to a shred of trust in the system -- it wouldn't surprise me as much now as in previous years.
                         –Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 12, 1998

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #28

     At home, I was never much for going to synagogue. Oh, I'd go, if my wife wanted to. Though really I was more performing my husbandly duty of keeping her company than fulfilling any personal desire to visit a place of worship related to my religion.  And lately, not even that.
     Out of town, however, is an entirely different matter. A sailor-finds-religion-in-port type of thing, where synagogues become a little bit of home turf in a foreign land. I have visited temples from Bridgetown to Vilnius to Jerusalem, gone to Sabbath services from London to Taipei, seen the historic buildings in Newport (the Touro Synagogue, built in 1761) and Charleston (blundering into Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, its congregation founded in 1749, stupidly 
never imagining it would still be in use, clomping inside in my big cargo shorts and short-sleeved sports shirt, crashing some poor kid's bar mitzvah, finding myself, trapped and aghast, amidst hatted ladies and men in linen suits). 
     Punishment perhaps. 
     My first thought, receiving this charmingly off-kilter photo of the Magen David Synagogue in Mumbai, sent by my friend Michael Cooke, who is on a speaking tour of India, was, "So it's not just me."
     His accompanying note was concise:
    "With a sand-bagged guard hut in Mumbai. Beautiful building inside and out."
     There are 4,500 Jews in India, a nation of a billion people, and the Magen David Synagogue, built in 1861, has a school that accepts non-Jews; indeed, it has to be the only synagogue school where 98 percent of the students are Muslim. Jews have been in India nearly 2,000 years; in Kerala there are two "Jew Streets."
     There are actually eight synagogues in Mumbai; most modest, but grander than the Mogen David is the newer, larger,  but also blue Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, built in 1884. 

     As well as a Chabad house that was occupied during the 2008 terrorist attacks across the city. Which explains the sandbagged security post. Synagogues abroad tend to be fortified, out of necessity. I remember visiting the Grand Synagogue in Rome. To get into its lovely Babylonian-style sanctuary, visitors must pass through one of those tight, 90-degree turn, bullet-proof security chambers, where one door clicks before the other opens. The grim result of an 1982 PLO attack where terrorists rushed in, firing machine guns and hurling grenades, wounding 37 people and killed a toddler. 
     It seemed poignant, in the sprawling Eternal City, where you can freely wander in and out of half the churches in Christendom, including the St. Peter's. But the Jews need police with machine guns in front of theirs. Maybe that's also a reason I visit; to show support for the beleaguered community that I belong to, a tiny and dwindling tribe, hated and attacked in all places and at all times, yet accused of secretly running the world.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sign of the times: Danville company working hard to dazzle Las Vegas

Shannon Stine, an employee at Watchfire Signs in Danville, tests the LEDs in a new sign. 

    At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much in common between the glitz of Las Vegas and the grit of Danville.     
     Vegas is a thriving desert metropolis, world-famous as a gaudy adult oasis floating on a sea of gambling money. Danville, a small community of modest homes, is a once-thriving town that has never been the same since the GM plant shut down 30 years ago.
     Wealth is on flashing display everywhere in Las Vegas. Five years ago, the U.S. government called Danville the cheapest place to live in the United States.
     What could the connection be?
     The flashing signs are the giveaway.       

      Go to Danville, 120 miles south of Chicago. Turn down Maple Street, to where it dead-ends with the unfortunately-named Bahls Street, a source of never-ending guffaws from truckers making pickups and deliveries. There you will find Watchfire Signs, which right now is constructing the largest digital display in the world, a $30 million, four-block long, barrel-vaulted, 130,000 square foot video screen that, when complete, will form a canopy above Fremont Street in Las Vegas.
     Watchfire employs about 320 people manufacturing and selling LED signs. If you drive down the Kennedy, you've already seen their work: Watchfire manufactures video billboards for JCDecaux. The company began in 1945 as Time-O-Matic, producing grids of bulbs under bank signs telling the time and temperature. The company also created flashing signs for Vegas casinos.
     They've grown considerably over the past decade, discarding their mechanical-sounding name, and now tackling the biggest sign ever attempted, beating out 15 other companies worldwide that bid on the job.
     "For a company like ours, this is a huge project," said Steve Harriott, president and CEO. "For any company — it's is the biggest screen in the world."
     Manufacture began last month. To see it, you must put on an anti-static smock and booties before entering the state-of-the-art assembly room.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Flashback 2011: Sons of Thorne Rooms artist still run dad’s studio

A Thorne Room in the modern style. 

     Hank Kupjack died Monday. My colleague Maureen O'Donnell did her usual excellent job ushering the miniaturist into the hereafter. I felt a connection, beyond that offered by Maureen, because I had visited Kupjack at his studio in 2011. I remember being pleased that I had stumbled upon a bit of controversy over a subject as blandly familiar as the Thorne Rooms.


     Imagine that you are in the Impressionist wing at The Art Institute of Chicago, admiring the masterpieces, and you notice a placard telling visitors that the sons of Vincent Van Gogh — Harold and Bob Van Gogh, say — still run their dad’s studio.
     That’s basically what you find if you go down to the beloved Thorne Miniature Rooms in the basement of The Art Institute.
     Over the holidays my wife dragged the family there. I’ve never been a particular fan of the Thorne Rooms — the 68 wee interiors always struck me as girly. But they are art, of a sort, with a certain serene quality, and I had no trouble peering into them for 20 minutes, reading the notations, including one crediting the work of local craftsman Eugene Kupjack, adding: “Today Kupjack Associates is operated by his two sons, Hank and Jay, in Park Ridge, Illinois.”
     A few days later, I was shaking hands with Hank Kupjack, 59, a singular figure — very thin, pants tucked into tall black leather boots, wearing glasses, a turtleneck and a mop of anachronistic ginger brown hair.
     We chatted briefly about Istanbul, where the rooms were on display last year, then sat down at his workbench — dozens of jars of paint and shellac, dozens of needle nose pliers. Kupjack lit a Marlboro cigarette and conversation immediately took an unexpected dive into controversy.
     “As you know, the Thorne Rooms are very popular,” he began. “The Institute has never liked the rooms, I’ll be honest with you. Now they do. But they hadn’t, for a very long time, because they are the most popular thing in the Art Institute. . . . But they’re not Impressionist paintings, and the Institute for a long time didn’t like that. They always rubbed them the wrong way — they only acquired them because Thorne gave them to the Institute, [which] only took them because [Mrs. Thorne] was a founding member of the Art Institute and the only donor during the Depression. Once they were installed they couldn’t do anything about it.”
     That’s the risk of all public art — once you put it in, you can never get rid of it — and why Chicago is stuck forever contemplating a rusty baboon, a fiberglass Snoopy in a blender, and other crude 1970s debris that aging masters fobbed off on the city.
     Not to lump the Thorne Rooms in with such monstrous modernist kitsch — at least they require skill to create and are pleasant to regard.
     To my surprise, the Art Institute cheerily acknowledged both the popularity of the rooms now and the undervaluing of the rooms, installed in the mid-1940s, in the past.
     “When people come here, they look for American Gothic, for Sunday on the Grande Jatte, and for the Thorne Rooms,” said Erin Hogan, director of communications. “They’re a hugely, hugely popular part of the museum.”
     “I think there’s always that problem with, not only miniatures, but decorative arts in particular,” said Lindsay Mican Morgan, curator of the rooms. “There’s a history where paintings became ‘art’ and anything else is simple and decorative.”
     The Kupjacks — Hank is the main artist, Jay assists and take photographs — make the miniatures on a scale of one inch to one foot, now primarily for collectors and rich folk who want to immortalize themselves. The studio that produced “The Drew Carey Show,” for instance, paid the Kupjacks $100,000 to create a diorama of the show’s set.
     “Right now I’m doing a classical Greek andron — an andron is a room specifically built in a Greek home for parties, for boys only,” said Kupjack. “You basically sat around, drank wine, told stories, read poetry and behaved badly. The donor wants to show the context this stuff was actually used in antiquity.”
     “And the donor?” I asked.
     “We’re having serious issues,” he said, of the museum, which he asked me not to name (Geez, I thought, I flee politics to seek refuge in quaintness, and controversy still nips at my heels like a dim pup). “It’s going to go to one of several institutions that have large collections of classical art.”
     The Thorne Rooms — I did not realize — were intended to replace full-scale interiors.
     “When Mrs. Thorne was on the board in the 1920s, it was all the rage for museums to have full-sized period rooms,” said Kupjack. “The Institute had, I think, five or six. And she realized that not only were they terribly expensive to recreate . . . they took vast amounts of space and ultimately, when the public walked through they didn’t give a damn. The purpose of the Thorne Rooms was so that the Institute did not have to have full-sized period rooms. She did not realize they were much more popular than full-sized rooms until she did it.”
     I found the Kupjacks candid and charming, filled with tales of P.K. Wrigley, Marshall Field V and Malcolm Forbes, and the museum has grown to value them.
     “I have to admit, when I got this position, it took many tries and a lot of bridge building to gain their trust,” said Morgan. “They definitely felt hurt from the past. To me, they had so much history — they’ve given me fabrics, they’ve been very generous — it seemed ridiculous not to associate with them.”

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 7, 2011

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Jussie Smollett situation reminds us: An example is not proof

                                                                   Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

     In an era when everyone’s talking, all the time, silence is a privilege.
     A radical thought from a person paid good money to blow off his big bazoo.
     But never on command. I’m fortunate in that I rarely must comment on any given situation. My boss never shifts the stump of a wet cigar in his mouth and barks, “Steinberg! Your take on the Kershpungen Kerfuffle! Online in 30 minutes!”
     Not yet anyway.
     I do believe in comment, but after reflection. Time is our friend. We are allowed to think about stuff, to see what develops. We don’t have to argue every murky, fluid situation. We can just wait and find out.
      I’d never heard of either Jussie Smollett or his TV show “Empire” before Jan. 29, when the young actor reported being attacked in Chicago. Such things happen — Wrigleyville is next to Boystown, and in the summer, carloads of suburban bully boys are known to assault pedestrians whose step isn’t as heavy as theirs.

     But that wasn’t the situation here. It wasn’t summer; it was 20 below. And he was walking in Streeterville, not on Halsted Street. There was preparation beyond drinking a case of Old Style: a rope, and bleach. And, most incredibly, claims that this is MAGA country, which it certainly is not. Donald Trump won’t show his face here.
Nor was this any random young man on his way home from Sidetrack. This was a celebrity.
     I try not to engage in Facebook tug-o-wars. Better to read and not react. But I came upon a string of comments from people horrified at this attack. Doubts were being raised and the doubters reviled. They needed support. I thought carefully, then wrote:
     “This is a very strange set of facts. Not a typical Chicago crime.”

     I felt safe with that. A couple days later, I came upon another friend out on a limb:
     "I know many will call me an ass for not believing the victim but this story is BS," he wrote.
     To some, that was bigotry rampant.
     "It saddens me that it is easier for people to find this story made up (hospital pictures of injuries, document threats and all) than see this is plausible."
     It seemed cowardly to hurry past. I weighed in:
     "I have to admit, I had the exact same thought. It just seems implausible. Not impossible. But the odds of this celebrity hitting town and running into the cast of 'Deliverance' ... let's just say if I had to bet the ranch, it would be on Some Other Explanation."
     Since then, over the past two weeks, the story has assumed the usual pattern. Blue America waved the bloody shirt—see, this is the nest of haters we must deal with! Now that the blood appears to be ketchup, and perhaps—still perhaps, remember—Smollett cooked this up, hiring the men who supposedly assaulted him for reasons I won't guess at—Red America had a jubilee: see, all this racism and homophobia stuff is a lie. We live in Mayberry where everybody is happy.
     The core problem, ignored by both sides, has nothing to do with whatever happened to Smollett that night. The problem is that an example isn't proof.
     If I want to illustrate that America is a deeply racist country, whose economic success is built upon the dehumanization of black people, the slavers' poisonous worldview still with us to this day, I don't need a street incident to make my case. I can just flop open a history book to almost to any random page. Nor does the country's pervasive homophobia, despite real advances, need to be proven by a mugging.
     When the initial news was seized upon, as Exhibit No. 1 for these woes, those eagerly banging garbage can lids together were playing Trump's game: trot out a dramatic crime then demand a wall.
     When diligent police work cast the attack into question, the Revanchist Right picked up the stick the Left dropped, and made it Exhibit No. 1 for Fake News. More proof that the racism and homophobia we're never acknowledged in the first place does not exist.
     Why does everybody do it? Cherry pick newly-baked facts that we hope will support us? It must show lack of confidence in our view of the world, this constant junkie scramble for new validation.
     See why silence is so attractive? I've said it before: Shutting up is an art form.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Will you be enjoying Nantucket Sea, Himalayan Pink, or, ahem, common table salt tonight?"

     Sunday night we met old friends at a restaurant in Glenview. Gusto, an Italian place with a nice atmosphere and hearty, homemade food. Their choice; I hadn't heard of Gusto, never mind been there. But they said it was a favorite, and our experience there proved their judgment sound, starting with the arrival of the bread: fresh, warm, braided, friendly little rolls. 

    Bread serves a time-honored function in the restaurant experience. It takes the edge off the hunger that sent you there in the first place. It is a small gift of welcome from the owners to their guests for the evening. It is the first indication diners have of the excellence going on back in the kitchen.
    I limited myself to one roll, by an act of will, saving myself for the dinner to come. Though not without casting a covetous look or two at the basket, fortunately out-of-reach across the table. I was glad for that when dinner arrived, a plate brimming with rigatoni, pomodoro sauce, meatballs. Pure and lovely. When I got down to the last tube, I looked around and said, "I think I'll take the rest home."
     Everyone laughed.
     Gusto wasn't the only restaurant I went to for the first time last week. The previous Tuesday, I met a friend for our monthly strategy lunch. We usually go to The Dearborn: convenient, new, excellent food and service. But we had had to reschedule several times—busy men!—and we couldn't get a reservation on short notice.
     So he suggested Steadfast, on West Monroe. I had never heard of it, and went with the excitement of trying someplace new. In many ways similar to The Dearborn. Hip, new, or at least opened in 2016, which is new to me, since I probably have cans in the back of my fridge opened in 2016. 
     Both featured Cuban sandwiches, and I was about to order one, for comparison purposes, when I was seduced by an Asian salad with thick soba noodles, as well as shaved vegetables, salted peanuts and miso vinaigrette. I'm a sucker for soba noodles. Throw some herbed chicken on top and you're only out $18—well, my pal is out $18. He always pays, and when I tried to pay, he looked hurt—he's a few clicks up the food chain than I am— and wouldn't let me do it.
     Bread was on the menu, which is a thing nowadays, as restaurants try to find new ways to monetize the dining experience. For a while they weren't giving you bread. Some places asked, other places expected you to ask. It seemed fallout from so many people doing low carb diets, from restaurants tired of wasting bread. Now they've taken a new tack, and are trying to sell it back. Girl and the Goat does the same thing.
     "House baked artisan breads." I asked my pal if we should give it a go, and he was enthusiastic.
     The staff of life pictured above arrived. I selected the reddish bread—a roll, really. It was pleasant and slightly sweet. Beets were involved, I believe the server said. But not so good that I worried myself excessively about trying the others. One was plenty.
     Don't get me wrong. I liked Steadfast. The salad was excellent, and enough to drive me back. I wrinkled my nose a bit when I asked the waitress why the place was called "Steadfast" and she just shrugged, as if the explanation for the name of where she worked is unknowable. A mystery. If you're going to give your restaurant a quirky name, at least acquaint the waitstaff with why. If they can't do that, what else can't they bother to do? The full name is Steadfast at The Gray, by the way, named for the boutique hotel that you will explore, as I did, trying to find the bathroom. Fairly elegant, and you can get a bed for $180 a night (Not that I required one on the hike to the john; but the place is swank, and I wondered).
     I hope I'm not alone in flinching at pricy bread. Maybe that makes me Old School. I never got used to charging for water either. To me it seems another step toward the day when the napkin sommelier will glide over, snap open a case, and start brandishing swatches of cloth and raving about Egyptian cotton and thread counts and the Thai Black Silk Option and such while I hold up my palms and say, "Oh no no no, plain white napkins will do." His expression freezes, the smile dying, and he snaps the teak case shut with a dismissive clap. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

White whale and wide wall: American obsessives Ahab and Donald Trump

Ahab, illustrated by Rockwell Kent. "In the mid-20th century, he's an argument against totalitarianism," said Will Hansen, curator of the Herman Melville exhibit at The Newberry. "And now he's this demagogue leading us over the cliff."

     Even Ahab, the great figure of self-destructive obsession in American literature, gets pushback, immediately, while he’s still selling his quest to the doomed crew of the Pequod. He displays the ounce of Spanish gold belonging to whoever first sights the white whale and nails it to the mast. The crew cheers. But Starbuck, the young chief mate — and future eponym for a famous chain of coffee shops — isn’t huzzahing with the rest. He’s scowling.
     “What’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck,” Ahab demands. “Wilt thou not chase the white whale? Art not game for Moby Dick?”
     “I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow,” replies Starbuck. “But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.”
     It might be a stretch to compare Ahab and Donald Trump. One man is sun-bronzed and lean, the other orange-dyed and stout. But the two men do share a leadership style — both issuing “orders so sudden and peremptory.”
     And Ahab’s white whale does resonate with Trump’s wide wall. When Starbuck elaborates his objection, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” he is referring to the unreasoning whale.
     Echoed by the dumb thing of Trump’s wall, which is stupid because it is racist, unnecessary and expensive. Most Americans, like Starbuck, are clear-eyed enough to oppose such vengeful folly.
     Moby Dick is on my mind, having walked through the excellent “Melville: Finding America at Sea” with organizer Will Hansen, The Newberry Library’s director of reader services and curator of Americana.
     “The great American secular Bible,” he said, pausing before, “the first editions of Moby Dick, first published in London.”
     “It was fairly common in the 19th century for American writers to first publish in England, probably because America had no copyright protections,” Hansen said. "England was starting to get more copyright protections, thanks to Dickens, if you first published in England it was thought you had a better case to sue if somebody pirated your work."

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"It is a grape."

    I love, love, love going to the supermarket. Always have, back to the day when my mother and I would visit the two groceries that existed in our world, Pick & Pay or A & P. I was almost an adult before I discovered that you could buy food from a place that didn't have an ampersand in its name.
     Back then, the joy was just to hang with my mom and maybe score a black and white cookie at the Hough Bakery at the back of the supermarket. Now I like to study the products. Because you never know what you might find, like the orange box of Zante Currants on the right above. 
     If you grew up on the things, forgive me. But I had never heard of them, the unfamiliar product made even stranger by the oh-so-familiar Sun-Maid logo. It's like you saw an orange bottle of Heinz Mooshpa. A sauce of some kind,  apparently. 
     Of course I bought a box. "Tiny, tart and dark to taste," according to the Sun-Maid web page, which says they are made from the Corinth grape. I had heard the term "currant" before, usually describing something found in bakery items, a perception Sun-Maid validates, noting, "For many, they’ve become the preferred delicacy in healthy baked good recipes, like scones, cookies, breads, muffins and rolls."  
     But "Zante"? That is the true thrill: "A name of one of the Ionian islands, anciently Zacynthus," according to my Oxford English Dictionary. Used in the names of certain products. "Zante wine, wood, etc."
     The OED's first citation is from some business publication from 1615, but I knew I could do better, quickly stumbling upon a 1913 publication, compiled by Michael F. Tarpey, called "Levantine Grapes Commercially Known As Currents."      
    It quotes one Dr. Gustav Eisen, curator of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and an expert on horticulture, who testified that he had "made the Zante current one of the objects of his researches and studies" and that the fruit can be found mentioned in English documents dating back to 1333, as there was "considerable trade carried on between the Venetians and the English in Northern Europe generally in a fruit that was known as the 'raisin of Corinth.'" 

     A modest publication of only 40 pages, "Levantine Grapes" nevertheless begins more boldly than many novels: 
     Every discussion of tariff brings up the "Zante currant" question.     The "Zante current," miscalled, is not a currant.     It is a grape. Currants grow on a bush. Grapes grow on vines. The misnamed "Zante currant" is in no sense analogous to the American currant. The misunderstanding arises from a corruption of its French name "Raisin de Corinthe," or Corinthian grape.
      The book was directed at Congress, its purpose, it stated ,was "convincing legislators and the people that this question should be understood and finally settled." Of course money was involved. "Levantine Grapes" worries that reduction in tariffs on Zante currents would pose "a severe, if not mortal, blow to an industry which, as yet wobbly upon its feet, promises to become a prime industry."
      They must have won their case: the flood of cheap Greek dried fruit must have been effectively deflected, as the Sun-Maid Zante currants were grown, not in Greece, but California. Honestly, I could plunge deeper into pre-World War I grape tariffs, but I have a sense it's time to wrap up.
      Before we leave our topic, I have to point out that the island has a cameo in The Iliad, no less, in Book 2, translated by Robert Fagles: 
Next Odysseus led his Cephallenian companies, gallant-hearted fighters, the island men of Ithaca, of Mount Neriton's leafy ridges shimmering in the wind, and men who lived in Corcylia and rugged Aegilips, men who held Zacynthus and men who dwelled near Samos...
     See why I love shopping? One second you are weighing grapefruit in your hand to see if it's juicy enough to merit buying. The next you catch the faintest echo of an early 20th century trade tussle then, better, a clank of bronze, a whiff of sea salt, carried across the globe and the ages by tiny grapes that might not have dried in the Ionian sun, but are the descendent of fruit that once did.   

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #27

      I could go all Benjamin Franklin on you and ask whether you think the sun above is rising or setting, and then use that as a measure of optimism. (Franklin famously mused whether the sun on the back of George Washington's chair at the Constitutional convention was rising or setting; he thought it ascendant).  
     But Tom Peters sent this, calling it "Frigid Sunset." The sun can be mocking, when its so cold, though this photo doesn't really convey "cold" to me. I asked Tom to elaborate on it, and this is what he said:
It's a wetland just south of Deer Creek Golf Course in University Park on Old Monee Road just east of Western Ave. I have driven by it over the decades on my way to and from work at the post office and now the flower shop down in Beecher. It is a favorite stopping spot for migrating water fowl in the Spring & Fall and home to many geese, egrets and blue herons. I was fortunate enough to see an immature bald eagle fly over on one of my trips home from work, that made my day.
     Tom's right about eagles making your day. I haven't seen many—usually in the UP. 
     Franklin's bit about rising or falling, by the way, is a little trite. A person who sees a sunset is not, by definition, less optimistic than a person who sees a sun rise. He, or she, might be just looking farther ahead, to the challenges and rewards of the next day. Might be wishing an end to a particularly taxing day that has gone by. I know many an American is eager for our current historic period to wind up as soon as possible and bring something better to come. That is surely optimism. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Jason Van Dyke’s sentence was fair — Kwame Raoul is wrong to challenge it

     Just when the Laquan McDonald case finally seemed to approach what they call “closure” in the tragedy biz, with former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke sentenced to 81 months in prison, meaning he’d serve three years and change for pumping 16 shots into the teenager on Oct. 20, 2014, along comes our new Illinois attorney general, Kwame Raoul, to kick over the can brimming with human heartache and ask the Illinois Supreme Court for a longer sentence.
     And worse, from my perspective — self-referential perspective, sure, but what else is new? — is that now I have to write about it, having managed to studiously avoid the whole thing, mostly, mucking around with Roman philosophers and British dukes and whatever shiny trinket I can find to distract myself and maybe you.
     The whole story is just so grim. From 17-year-old McDonald staggering around Pulaski Avenue on a school night, clutching his 3-inch knife, to the first wave of cops somehow managing to keep their distance until Van Dyke races up, ponders the situation for a full six seconds, then empties his automatic into McDonald, to the gauzy veil of lies ritualistically tossed over the crime, reflexively, out of habit, not just by officers on the scene, but by the superintendent, the mayor and a shrugging City Council, which licked its thumb and peeled off $5 million of your tax money, handing it to McDonald’s family, who might not have been taking as careful care of the teen as you or I might, while he was alive, but who were scrupulous about keeping their yaps zipped until a journalist — no wonder everybody hates us — dragged the video into public view just in time for Christmas 2015.
     Sure, during the trial, as people agonized over the possibility of a police code of silence — could it possibly exist? — I thought of piping up, “Are you people insane?” The code of silence is the CPD, body and soul. But anyone who knows anything about Chicago already knows that, and I try not to traffic in the obvious.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mancow bites minister: radio host brings down Harvest Bible founder

Mancow Muller, left, being baptized
in the Jordan River by James
MacDonald (Photo courtesy of
Mancow Muller) 
      When disc jockeys and pastors clash, usually it is the radio personality who gets the worst of it, facing outraged listeners, fleeing advertisers and summary firings from nervous station management.
     But after the self-described "wild man of Chicago radio" Mancow Muller— since last month on WLS 890 AM — took issue with his former spiritual guide James MacDonald, founder of the Harvest Bible Chapel , it was the senior pastor of the mega-church who lost his job, officials of the 12,000 member church with seven locations in the Chicago area announced "with great sadness" Wednesday.
     MacDonald had said he was taking an "indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership” in mid-January.
     “I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve,” he said in a statement.
     "I'm upset that I was duped by a con man," said Muller, who wrote a 2,200 word condemnation in the Daily Herald at the end of January against the man who baptized him in the River Jordan. He said how once MacDonald "taught me forgiveness, trust, being authentic and taking a stand for what's right," but that Muller later came to see "an environment of thievery, and a smarmy actor out front, a guy who ... was brutal to everyone he thought was subservient."
     On Tuesday, Muller referred to the largely conservative, largely Republican church as "the cult that's called Harvest" on his radio show, demanding it refund money to the faithful, and encouraged listeners to join a class action lawsuit that he said he was starting.
What has MacDonald actually done to cause him to be let go?

To continue reading, click here

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

And the greatest musical moment I’ve ever seen belongs to … Laurie Anderson

     I’ve seen a lot of great musicians perform.
     Bruce Springsteen, back-to-back with saxophonist Clarence Clemons, cooking to “Rosalita.” Annie Lennox, her carrot hair crewcut-short, keeping time with drumsticks over her head, singing in a bar in Cleveland. I’ve seen Leonard Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and Muddy Waters sing the blues. I’ve seen Frank Zappa display his shambolic virtuosity, twice, and Yo-Yo Ma play cello so sublimely the audience cried. Or maybe that was just me. Once, at a party, Tony Bennett made a surprise appearance, stood within arm’s reach and sang, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’ve heard distinctive singers from Joe Cocker to Joe Strummer, of the Clash. I’ve seen Elton John pound the piano on “Bennie and the Jets” and Ray Charles caress it, singing “Georgia on my Mind.” I’ve listened to David Bowie noodle a synthesizer and heard Loretta Lynn warble “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I’ve heard Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet, warming up in his hotel room. Alone with me.
     So yeah, I’ve been around. But without question, the best musical moment I’ve ever seen was something performance artist Laurie Anderson did in Colorado in 1983, and since she’s doing a rare show Sunday in Chicago, I hope you don’t mind if I revisit the memory.
      I had become acquainted with her the year before, when “Big Science” came out. I remember seeing the album in the window of Vintage Vinyl in Evanston, and marching in to buy it, though I had never heard her music.
     Why? I’m abashed to say this — it feels creepish in 2019 — but I thought Laurie Anderson was a babe. The short spiky hair. The big white sunglasses. Cute as a button.
     In my defense, I was 21

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

What is it about cars that makes us love them?

     This is my second piece from the special Chicago Car Show magazine that was included in Sunday's Sun-Times. 

     It was the sound.
     The growl of the 650 horsepower, supercharged V8 engine of the Corvette Z06 as I mashed the gas pedal, sinking into the red leather seat. All that power. From zero to 60 in under three seconds. The roar seemed to reach into my skin, grab my bones, and shake them.
     Of course, this being the 21st century, even that howl of raw power is actually under fine-tuned control. A few taps and the “Engine Sound Management” screen pops up, offering four modes, “Stealth,” “Tour,” “Sport” and “Track.”
     “Stealth is for when you are on long highway trips, and get tired of the noise,” said George Kiebala, owner of Curvy Road, an exotic sports car time share in Palatine. If you want the joy of driving that Corvette super car, without having to actually buy one, Curvy Road allows you access for a fraction of the cost.
     And why would anybody want to do that? Why spend $1,000 to drive a car that can go three times the legal limit for a few days?
     Maybe that is best answered by what Louis Armstrong supposedly said when somebody asked him to explain jazz: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
     That said, let’s try.

                                                              • • •

     What is it about cars that makes us love them?

     Being American, no doubt. Love of cars is in our blood, our birthright, with our wide open expanse of roads, the last remnant of the Western frontier. Our literature is filled with classic tales of setting out on the road in cars: Jack Keroac’s “On the Road” to Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Not to mention all those songs, “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “Thunder Road” and “Little Red Corvette.” Americans are born loving cars.
     Do you believe that? Don’t. Americans were taught to love cars.
     At the beginning of the 20th century, when automobiles were introduced, and were viewed with collective horror as too fast — pushing speeds of 15 miles an hour! — and too dangerous. At mid-century, as highways began to blast through neighborhoods and the public resisted. The phrase “America’s love affair with the automobile” was coined in a 1961 TV program, “Merrily We Roll Along,” on the DuPont Show of the Week (DuPont owned a quarter of General Motors) hosted by Groucho Marx, of all people. He woodenly walks out at the beginning, leading a horse in one hand, holding a cigar in the other, and starts talking about “that great American romance between a man and his car.”
     He’s got the “man” part right. Thinking over a lifetime of car commercials — all those sleek sedans smoothly gliding over glistening roads, sprays of autumnal leaves flying everywhere — and trying to pinpoint even one that stood out, the only ad that comes to mind is one from the 1970s for the Triumph Spitfire. Even then it might be more for the fighter plane than the car.
     “You not only get a car and a girl, but a piece of history,” the narrator promises.
     Which brings up the very real possibility that love of cars is a guy thing. Being a guy myself, and therefore biased, I consulted someone who wasn’t, putting the question to one of the cleverest women I know, Molly Jong-Fast, New York novelist and Twitter wit (as well as daughter of best-selling author Erica Jong).
     Love of cars, I asked, a guy thing, right?
     “Definitely,” she said. “Definitely a guy thing.”
     “I can’t speak for the whole gender, but [loving cars] seems really dumb to me, and most women think it’s really dumb” she continued. “It doesn’t even make any sense. Men get something out of cars that is completely lost on me. I like driving just fine. … it seems , it doesn’t even make any sense, why you would you care?”
     Why do men care? As teenagers, cars represented freedom — freedom to sneak off somewhere with a girl. Besides cars offering logistical support for romance, men seem to believe that fancy cars impress women. Though looking at my own life, that hasn’t been the case.
     My wife was always maddeningly unimpressed with cars. In my mid-20s, Chevrolet let me use a brand new Corvette for a week. Midnight blue. I didn’t tell my then-girlfriend, merely showed up with it. She got in the car and started talking about her day. I looked at her, jaw hanging.
     “What?” she said, picking up on my expression.
     “THE CAR!!!!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you notice THE CAR?!?!
     “Oh this,” she said, looking around, as if noticing it for the first time. “You know I don’t care for this kind of thing.”
     I married her anyway.
     Jong-Fast said that men like expensive cars, not to impress women, but to impress other men.
     “You definitely see it in Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s a status thing. It’s one of those things men do for other men. Funny, because women are accused of dressing for other women, for being thin for other women. Cars are proof that men are concerned with what other men think of them.”
Neil Steinberg with the 2015 BMW i8 

     There has to be more to it than that. Cars have personalities, like people, and exotic cars are loved for their quirks as much, if not more, than their speed. I drove a 
2015 BMW i8 and was most taken, not with the obviously impressive stuff — its gull wing doors — but its little quirks.     
     Such as? The hood. It’s sealed. It doesn’t open. At least, it can’t be opened by civilians, who have no business poking around in the electric motor underneath. If you want the hood opened, take it to a BMW dealer, who knows what he’s doing. I love that.

                                                                            • • •

     I’ve been talking about other men’s cars. To me, car love is reflected in a man’s first car — heck, I’m sure some women love their first cars too. My first car was utterly impractical, purchased for entirely psychological reasons. I was 22, and living alone in Los Angeles, working a job I despised. I looked at exactly one car: a 1963 Volvo P1800, white. It was my dream car; I needed the boost.
     In some ways, the car was a disaster. It had a rebuilt engine from another car. Constant repairs. But it looked fantastic — it’s the car Simon Templar drives in “The Saint.” I once got a date at a four-way stop sign with a young woman in a convertible Mustang who shouted, “What is that?”
With the P1800. Barrington, 1984.
   I owned the car for about three years. Eventually, repairs started to get to me — the radiator started leaking, and with 1963 Volvo P1800 radiators hard to find outside of Sweden, the dealer built a new one, at the cost of a week’s salary. Eventually I had to sell it. When the new owner drove it away, I cried.
     Not to end on a downer note. Those who think that the advent of self-driving cars, not to forget Uber and the prospect of silently rolling cubes delivering riders from Point A to Point B will cool the passion that many have for automobiles are mistaken. It’ll just adapt, like all long-term relationships.
     “I love my Chevy Bolt and I’d almost rather drive it than any Ferrari,” said Curvy Road’s George Kiebala, insisting I take her for a spin. It was like driving a video game. “This whole amazing transition: electrification and how its working its way into he super car world.”
     So love of cars isn’t going away?
     “Oh no, oh my goodness no,” he said. “Definitely the opposite.”

Corvette Z06