Sunday, March 31, 2019

Flashback 2013: Congratulations Toronto!

    One fact about Chicago that only gets whispered in the place self is that while dynamic cities hurtle forward in population, we've remained frozen at 2.7 million people, as residents seek better jobs, flee violence, and new parents take a look at the school system and bolt for the suburbs (turns out, it wasn't just me).
     When this ran six years ago, Toronto had just edged past us in population. Now Canada's premiere metropolis has lost 60,000 people and we've gain 10,000. So maybe we can edge past them though, having established that population isn't a very good judge of a city, I won't be able to boast, at least not without gulping a heady draft of the shameless hypocrisy being quaffed coast-to-coast of late.

     The Canadians, in all their damnable fairness, are too decent to crow.
     So if you look at, oh, the Canadian Business magazine website Wednesday, it will reluctantly point out, that yes, Toronto is now North America's fourth largest city, nudging ahead of Chicago, its 2,791,140 residents to our 2,707,120. Yet it also cautions, in the very first paragraph: "But hold off on the confetti for one moment. Because while that's true, it's only half the story."
     What follows is an exercise in humility that would make the average chest-thumping, We're No. 1-howling Chicagoan shake his head in utter, visceral disgust.
      You see, it points out, had Toronto not "amalgamated"—Canadian for "sucked up nearby communities"—in 1998, "it wouldn't be nearly as big as Chicago."
     That's like saying O'Hare Airport wouldn't be in Chicago if Dad Daley hadn't twisted a few suburban arms to grab it in the mid-1950s. To which the Chicago answer is a shrug and a mutter of, "So what? We got it now."
     The magazine calmly points out that the Greater Toronto Area is about 6 million people, while Chicago has almost 9.5 million, and that many claim "Toronto still has a long way to go to catch up with Chicago."
     Well, um, yeah, it would have a long way, were that possible, but it isn't . . .
     See, their approach takes all the fun out of this. How can you swing at an opponent who starts the fight by lowering his gloves and smiling and complimenting your robe?
     Chicago doesn't have a third the population of New York City, yet that has never stopped us from standing on tiptoe, jutting our jaws out, pinwheeling our fists and snarling, "Oh yeah? You and what army?"
     We've been doing it for 100 years. The "Windy City" moniker—and everybody knows this, but there might be a reader or two who doesn't—isn't a reference to our gale-scoured lakefront, but to the hurricane of boostery braggadocio that accompanied our quest for the 1893 World's Fair.
     To be honest, even to parse the Chicago/Toronto comparison is an insult to our city. The two don't compare, except in numbers of people, now, apparently, and that doesn't mean anything. The top of the list, the very most populous city in North America is—and it was a surprise to me, not because it didn't make sense, but because I never thought about it before —Mexico City, with 8.8 million people.
     Now I've never been to Mexico City, so don't want to put it down. But it isn't as if the sense is that Mexico City is three times better than Chicago. Maybe they just hide their wonders very, very well.
     Ditto for Toronto. I've spent some time there so don't want to give the impression that people who live there are anonymous ciphers grinding through joyless lives devoid of charm or significance. They have . . . ah . . . Tim Horton's doughnuts shops, which I've eaten at, and which offers perfectly adequate doughnuts—not the excellent, artisanal doughnuts you'll find on every block nowadays in Chicago. But they will do, in a pinch, if you're hungry.
     So I won't start waxing on the generic, anodyne nature of life in Toronto. Its nondescript skyline whose only noteworthy element is a TV antenna. Its generic monuments; the Monument to Multiculturalism in front of the Fairmont Hotel comes to mind. The city also has a memorial to people killed in industrial accidents—I kid you not. I'm not doing that, because, thanks to the Internet, it would only jab at some nice people who, as it is, already sit crouched in slush with their hands locked around their knees, gazing poutingly over the border to the south, paralyzed with envy, disdain and longing—they just wish we cared about them enough so they could have the chance to scorn us.
     But we don't and never will.
     Toronto is slightly larger than Chicago in population, though they can hardly admit it.
     "For now, any way you slice it, Toronto is roughly the same size as Chicago," the Canadian Business article ends. "But if both cities stay on their present paths, ours will eventually become noticeably bigger."
     Well said, my brother journalist in the frosty North. Toronto will eventually become noticeably bigger. I think that sums up the situation. I prefer words I once told a friend considering leaving Chicago to take a job in Toronto: "Why? I'd rather be the 500th most important person in Chicago than the King of Canada."
     There are things that can't be measured in numbers, and judging a city by its population might seem significant, but that's like judging a book by its weight, or a song by the number of musical notes.
     So congratulations, Toronto, on the extra people. Let us know when you can make a decent pizza, or build a building that bears a second glance. Or when somebody writes a song about Toronto. Or shoots a movie in Toronto that actually takes place in Toronto. We'll be here, waiting, humming "Chicago."

      —Originally published in Sun-Times, March 8, 2013

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #32

     I only saw it once, parked all by itself in an auxiliary parking lot at the Chicago Botanic Garden: a Volvo P1800, my dream car, the first car I ever owned, though mine had seen hard use—an engine salvaged from a 144, a coat of white paint that was neither original nor glossy, but more of an eggshell matte. Nothing at all like this car, which was pristine: rehabbed and repainted, done with love and attention to detail. I stopped our van, hopped out and took a few photos. Why not? It was beautiful.
     That was a few years ago. Three or four. What is surprising is that now, whenever I pass the spot where the P1800 had been, as I do a few dozen times a year after visiting the garden, I give it the briefest glance of inquiry and longing, as if I expect the P1800 might somehow be there. Of course I do. The heart is a lonely hunter, but not very bright, and it returns , the poor dumb beast, to where it has found success, even when there is little hope of success. I never saw the car again. But it could be there, someday. Why not? It was there once..

Friday, March 29, 2019

Flashback 1999: It's a life of hard work in hardware business

      I am on vacation, and will be out-of-the-loop for ... a while.  In the meantime, I hope you don't mind if I disinter a few of my favorite columns of yesteryear that have somehow eluded previous expeditions back into the past. One of the great things about my job is the way you can peer into other people's lives, but sometimes it's heartbreaking to do so. 

     Sponges. Springs, all different sizes. Bins filled with black nails. Zud Cleaner. Wooden ladders. Spools of chain. Glue. White rubber sink stoppers. Latex gloves. Kleencut shears.
     Life hands everybody something different. Michael Mages, it handed a hardware store: Mages Hardware, 3653 Irving Park Road. The same store, under the same tin ceiling, that his father ran for his entire life. The same store, in the same place, that his grandfather opened May 20, 1919: 80 years ago this month.
     It is a narrow world, 20 feet across the storefront. Mages began working here as a child of 8 or 9. Now he is 45.
     "This is a treasure," he says, by way of greeting, walking across the ancient wooden floor, faded to a dull gray, with a sloping topography of gentle rolling hills and valleys all its own.   
    "The building was built in 1910. It was a bakery before my grandfather bought it."
     Mages is the only employee. His mom keeps the books. He had to let his last part-time worker go — business is that slow. He opens the store at 8:30 a.m. and closes it at 5:30 p.m., six days a week. His main hobby is bowling. Mages belongs to two leagues. His average is 125.
     Other men might have rebuffed life's gift. That's what Mages' older brother, Charles, did. He's a big wheel at Motorola.
     But Michael Mages never thought of tossing back the cards life dealt him and asking for a fresh hand. He is fighting to keep the store open in an age of hardware giants that can undercut him in price, overwhelm him in selection, outdo him in every category that doesn't involve considerations such as the appeal of oak cases with curved glass fronts, or the tactile sense of having a purchase wrapped up in brown paper and twine, then rung up on a cash register made in 1922, back when they still felt the need to make the metal look like mahogany.
     "I always enjoyed being in the hardware business," says Mages, no relation to the sporting goods store tycoon. "It changes every day. One day you're selling hammers. The next day pipe. The next day fixing windows. I like challenges. I liked doing the sales and promotions. They were always successful up to about 1990. Then the big boys came in, and people didn't notice your fliers, and it was harder to make an impact with an individual sale or promotion."
     You get the sense that at times the joy fades a little.
     "I'm not getting rich doing this," he says. "It's a tough grind. A small store has to struggle."
     Mages is always trying. He asked the Irving Park Historical Society to route its housewalk through his store. It declined, for good reason.
     To be honest, the store is old, but no Taj Mahal. There is dust. The beautiful cabinets are, for the most part, covered up. The items are not displayed in a particular order, although Mages bristles at that notion.
     "There is an order," he says, "I know where everything is."
     A sheet of white paper is taped to the wall behind the counter, next to a price list for rock salt (10 pounds: 79 cents). On it are names and dates: Max Mages, 82, born 1881, died Dec. 16, 1963; Sam Mages, 78, born Oct. 30, 1916, died April 15, 1995. And other family members who worked here.
     I ask Mages why he has the names posted, and he points out some cryptic numbers and letters by each name.
     "Grave locations," he says. "I go to the cemetery."
     He still misses his father, who died four years ago.
     "We worked well together; we had a system," he says. "If somebody brought in a window to be repaired, I would take out the old window; he would put the new window in."
     He brings out a gold-plated Stanley hammer mounted on a plaque.
     "At the 75th anniversary he was pretty sick," says Mages. "He was in seventh heaven with this thing. He brought it to show people at the synagogue. He did everything but take it to bed with him. It was the one thing I did in my life for him that he really appreciated."
     That last sentence hanging in the air, I ask why he does it. The relatives worked hard, but they're gone. He could earn more elsewhere.
     "It's hard to explain," Mages says. "I feel for my father and my grandfather, trying to make it, having a dickens of a time. This is their store. The product of their sweat."
     Does he ever regret his choice. He might have seen the world.
     "Are you kidding?" he says. "I don't care about that. You might travel around the world. But you almost always end up back in the same place."
     It is a place where he is at least appreciated. Art Staniec, a funeral director from Holenbach Funeral Home, walks in and buys $ 6.72 worth of steel wool. I ask him how long he's been coming here.
     "Forever," he says. "We prefer dealing with a family business. That's what we are. I don't mind paying a little bit more to Mike. If we don't support each other we're all going to be screwed."
     Wooden clothespins made in West Paris, Maine. Deadlocks. Ka-Bar Knives ("A Fistful of Quality"). A Madison Maid ironing table.
     "I really, in my heart, feel that this is a lost treasure," says Mages.
                            —Originally published May 30, 1999

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Flashback 1999: Medical-photo business not always a pretty picture

     I am on vacation. But before I simply hang out a "Gone Fishing" sign, I've rounded up a few of my all-time favorite columns for your reading pleasure.  Today's and tomorrow's are linked: the subject of tomorrow's column read this, and contacted me, wanting a similar treatment.
     I tried to find a trace of Custom Medical, but it seems to have vanished obliterated in the general media conflagration caused by the online world.  No need to puzzle why: the image of bacteria above, labeled free for re-use, was pulled off the internet in seconds.

     Life magazine wants tuberculosis. MTV, blood coursing through a vein. And Newsweek phones, every Friday it seems, seeking bubonic plague, E coli, cancer. They can't wait; they need it now.
     The calls and e-mails pour into Custom Medical Stock Photo, on Irving Park Road, the nation's largest supplier of medical images: 500,000 slides, from the most benign — a happy baby, a vial of pills -- to the most macabre, horrifying photographs of disease and trauma imaginable.
     When I ran into Custom Medical archivist Andy Hess, I knew I had to check out the operation. Making your living by tracking down pictures of brains and tumors seemed worth looking into.
     OK, OK, I'll admit it, there was something else. The way I met Hess will explain the other reason I wanted to go. I was in my neighborhood bar, Friar Tuck's. The bartender introduced herself. "I'm Chris," she said. "I'm Neil," I said. A tall, bearded fellow across the bar stood up. "Neil?" he said, "Neil Steinberg?" He hurried around the bar.
     As he approached me, I did something I'm not proud of. I lifted my hands defensively in front of my face and, cringing, squeaked, "You're not going to hit me, are you?"
     I figured he was an unhappy reader.
     When Hess—whom I had known in college—told me what he was doing now, my first impulse was, Yuuuuck. To counterbalance it, I felt I had to go and see for myself. Otherwise, I would always wonder.
     Custom Medical has 13 employees and occupies an airy space below a dance studio, with high ceilings and sunny glass block windows.
     The company was founded by Mike Fisher, who was a photo retoucher in the 1970s when he saw computers eating into his business. So he went to school to study medicine, hoping to become a medical photographer, when he met microbiologist Henry Schleichkorn.
     "I had 5,000 photographs; he had 5,000 photographs," said Fisher. "We basically looked at each other and said, 'Somebody's got to get these medical pictures from somewhere.' "
     Custom Medical has about 300 photographers and doctors contributing work. If the company doesn't have the image you want, it'll get it. Custom Medical once bought a cadaver and hired a pathologist to cut it up. It advertises for people with exotic medical conditions to come in and get their conditions photographed, for a small fee.
     The pictures end up everywhere. The organs pulled from the cadaver—set upon a glass plate and photographed—ended up as the graphics for a kids toy. A set of scanning electron micrographs were made into animation for an upcoming Patricia Arquette horror movie.
     "We're the kind of company where you see our pictures but you don't know it's us," said Fisher.
     This does not mean that they will sell the images to anyone. The rock group Santana once asked for a photo of a fetus for an album cover.
     "It's awfully inviting to say, 'That's my fetus on Santana's album,' " said Fisher, who refused. "But we're respectful of the material."
     The business is complex. Price of an image depends on how big it will be printed, how long it will be used, and where it will appear, whether in a popular magazine or a textbook. Custom Medical once sold a picture for $20 to appear on the cover of a high school student's science report.
     Some images do better than others. "There's a breast cancer cell that's sold like crazy," said Hess. The most profitable image is a ring of six surgeons—models—shot from below, as if a patient were looking up from an operating table.
     "I lit it and did the shot in 15 minutes," said Fisher. "The picture has sold over 100 times now; it has easily earned over $ 100,000."
     I asked Fisher if he ever saw anything that really upset him.
     "There were images of individuals out of Zambia," he said. "They were the only images that set me back, only because of the lack of medical care. It was really sad. Some of them were children. I've shown them to physicians, and their jaws usually drop."
     Before I left, I asked Hess to break out the really harsh stuff. He did, spreading several dozen slides across a big light table. I won't describe them, since every person to whom I've tried to describe them has stopped me after about three words. Let's just say you should be very careful around farm machinery. If you can avoid being shot, do so. And if anybody invites you to witness abdominal surgery on a horse, decline.
     When I closed my eyes to go to sleep that night, those slides, clear as if they were in front of me, leaped and danced in my mind for a good long time. Sometimes, it's better not to confront your fears.
                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 10, 1999

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

"Look at me!"


     I'm on vacation, technically. But before I put my feet up, enter radio silence, flip on the Greatest Hits reel and leave the blog to run itself—which might not be much, but is more than the folks reading the paper will get—I have to respond to Donald Trump's unhinged lashing out at his enemies, boosted by what he imagines, no doubt from watching Fox News, is an exoneration in the Mueller Report, when in fact—for those of us who still care about facts—it did no such thing.
     “There are a lot of people out there that have done some very, very evil things, some bad things, I would say some treasonous things against our country,” said Trump, doing his trademark projecting his flaws upon others and counting on his fans not to notice. “And hopefully people that have done such harm to our country — we’ve gone through a period of really bad things happening — those people will certainly be looked at.”
     By "evil things" he means law enforcement seeing whether Trump was the co-conspirator with Russia as they meddled in the 2016 elections—the meddling itself is beyond question—or merely its grinning beneficiary. He means the media that covered those investigations. Which leads us back, again, to that question that can't be asked enough:
     Why did the Russians prefer him to Hillary Clinton?
     Right. Because Clinton could be expected to work for the benefit of the United States of America. While Trump, at all times in all things, looks to his own private benefit, including the frisson of pleasure he gets rolling like a puppy at Vladimir Putin's feet and having his tummy scratched.
     I glanced into my spam filter, and heard ululations of joy coming from Trump supporters—the true villains of this story—who think their man has been triumphant because the special prosecutor did not choose to charge him with collusion. How special for them. For those of us who have not inexplicably sold out our country, abandoned our critical thought and embraced a monster, we have to remember that Donald Trump remains today what he was last week and last month and last year: a liar, bully and fraud who narrowly squeaked into office by making a raft of promises he never intended to fulfill, not to forget a big push over the wall by his pals the Russians. That he is now, then and always, someone who trashed all cherished American norms—respect for law enforcement, acknowledgement of verifiable fact, toleration of the media—and flushed them down the toilet. It hardly needs to be said, and here in the Midwest, no matter how I wave my hand, I'll never catch his attention over the heads of all the East Coast media. But with Trump promising dire consequences for those who point out his galaxy of flaws, I wanted to make sure to stand up and be counted among the righteous. I'm proud to state it as loudly as possible: Trump is a betrayal of everything valuable in American life. This historical moment either ends badly for Donald Trump, or badly for America. There is no middle ground. 


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Off-Year Election Day

   A sticker? What are the activities where they give you a sticker upon completion? Cleaning your room? If you're under the age of 8, that is, or other chores? Doing the dishes. Picking up your room. The sticker affixed to the charts that organized parents create to try to instill some kind of personal responsibility in their children. 
     We didn't do those for those boys. It seemed beneath the dignity of a child. 
     What else? A well-done paper, again in elementary school. The proverbial gold star. Or a smiley face. I haven't done a survey, but my guess is that by middle school stickers are gone or ironic, the flourish of those teachers who instruct with a smirk of self-knowledge.
     And voting. I already felt silly, heading over to early voting at the Northbrook Village Hall Monday. I had tried to read up on what was involved—be an informed voter! The Northbrook Tower, a surprisingly readable little weekly, took the effort to talk to the school board candidates. But there were three running for three openings. It seemed pointless to care.
     "It's my right and I want to do it," I explained, slightly abashed, to the poll volunteer, who asked if I was the Neil Steinberg.
     "Well, I'm a Neil Steinberg," I said. "There's another in Skokie. Sometimes he gets my mail."
     For some reason that got me a provisional ballot. Something about my signature. Either way, I got to vote. 
     Turns out there were more candidate than positions for Oakton Community College Trustee. I voted for the Jewish names ("I ain't no freakin' monument to justice," as Nicholas Cage says in "Moonstruck").
     The sticker was the icing on the cake. It couldn't have seemed more ridiculous had they given me a lollipop. Maybe the radicals are right. It's all a scam. The illusion of control, of democracy.  Not meaningless, for sure—Donald Trump being elected over Hillary Clinton certainly had meaning. But some kind of joke nevertheless, one we participate in, yet aren't really in on.  The joke is on us.
     I wasn't too upset about the Mueller squib over the weekend because, frankly, the damage is done, and whether Mueller offered a laundry list of dead-to-rights criminal behaviors of Donald Trump, or the document as it stands—and we don't know what's in it, just the attorney generals' big thumbs up—hardly matters. The system groans under the offense being committed hourly against it.  Will it hold? Is this the bottom or is there worse to come?  Maybe this whole voting thing will be done away with, eventually, along with the free press, and we'll miss the ritual, symbolic though it might have been. The next meaningful election is a year from November. At least I hope it's meaningful. Either way, we get a sticker.

Monday, March 25, 2019

'Do I stay here?'—Love endures daily through dementia, separation

     "You're here!" says Paul Lovell, greeting his wife of 41 years as she walks into his room. "Don't go away!"
     She has come, as she does every day, to be with him at lunch.
     "You look so beautiful today," she says.
     "I do?"
     "No, the guy in back of you," she says. "You look really good. You got your blue sweater on. Your blue pants. Your blue eyes."
     "Thank you.," says Paul. "I gotta keep up with you."
     Paul is 89. Anita is 85. She lives in their tidy home in Morton Grove. He lives in Room 222 at the Presence Sister Bonaventure Rehabilitation Center in Park Ridge,
     Their conversation is a blend of teasing affection.
     "He can hear; I can't hear," she says. "I told him he can hear two worms making love in the yard. I can't hear anything." 
     "The reason you can't hear is because you're talking too much," Paul says
     They both laugh.
     "That's true," she admits.
About 1.4 million Americans live in nursing homes; half for dementia-related reasons. One is Paul Lovell.
     "It's sad, about my husband," Anita says. "Even though he has dementia, he's so aware of everything. He'll say 'Where you're going?' I say 'I'm going home.' I've been there all morning. He says, 'Aren't you home now?" I say "No. This is your home." He says, 'Are you going to leave me here all alone?" I say, 'You're not alone Paul. You have people taking care of you."
     She picks up a large book celebrating the 2006 centennial of Park Ridge Country Club.
     "I was the only Jew in the whole country club, don't you know?" she says. "I got nervous before we got married. He said, 'Don't worry about it."
     She finds a section about Paul.
     "Oldest man ever to win a club championship," she says.
     "Did I ever see that?" he asks.

     To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Lori Lightfoot: From high school point guard to ‘kickass trial lawyer’

Lori Lightfoot
     Chicago has a mayoral election April 2, pitting powerful Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle against Lori Lightfoot, who had served on two police boards and a few other public roles, but didn't have much public imprint. At least from my perspective. I had interviewed Preckwinkle many times, done stories with her, eaten breakfast with her. Lightfoot I had never met until we sat down to talk for this assignment, which was challenging for a number of reasons.       
     First, I was paired with Lauren FitzPatrick, an excellent investigative and education reporter, and I had to up my game, and try to push beyond my usual shambolic approach to match her energy and thoroughness. It was educational to work with her. There were also far more editors involved than usual, and I had to adjust to a team approach.
     Second, even though Lightfoot is only two years younger than I am, and grew up an hour from where I did, I had to work to find a handle on her personality. This story took a number of false starts, and several times slid wheels-spinning into the ditch before we managed to get it up on the road and going in the form below. It's long—2800 words—but I hope it manages to keep your interest.
      The moment University of Michigan sophomore Lori Lightfoot stepped inside her Ohio home for Christmas break, she knew something wasn’t right.
     There were no decorations, no tree, nothing. And her mother loved Christmas. Always made a big deal of the holiday.
     “Something’s wrong,” said her mother.
     The older brother who Lightfoot idolized had robbed a bank in Nebraska and shot a security guard. Their devastated parents were considering mortgaging their house to raise bail money. But her brother had spread word that if he made bail, he’d run. Their hardworking parents — her father, deaf, toiled as a janitor and at other menial jobs, her mother a caretaker — could lose their home.
     “So here I am, a 19-year-old, the youngest of four,” Lightfoot said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, “and I have to help my parents navigate through this incredibly painful and difficult circumstance, which really kind of reshaped my relationship with them for the rest of my life and their lives, and tell them it would be absolutely foolish for them to take this money out because he was going to flee and that, if he fled, they would lose their house.”
     These days, Lori Lightfoot isn’t shy about taking charge. But if you’re tempted to draw a line between her troubled brother, who would spend decades behind bars, and Lightfoot’s career in law, particularly as a federal prosecutor, putting criminals like her brother in prison, don’t. She says that wasn’t the reason.
     “It was really economics that drove me to think about the law,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to do something where I would be able to take care of myself financially.”
     If that seems a contradiction — such a pivotal moment in her life having zero impact on her professionally — get used to it.
     Lightfoot, 56, stands a good chance of being elected mayor of Chicago on April 2, which would make her the first African-American woman to do so and also the first openly gay person.
     There is a lot to unpack regarding Lightfoot, including many contradictions. And not just because she is 5-feet-1, maybe, yet played on her high school basketball team — point guard — and quarterbacked her intramural football team at the University of Chicago Law School.
     “Flag football,” she observed, as if someone might otherwise suspect she were playing tackle.

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Flashback 2007: Favorite Ledes

At the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, 1991 (Photo by Bob Davis)
     Thirty-two years ago today, I joined the staff of the Sun-Times. As in past years, I thought I would celebrate with something from the archive and found this, written for my 20th anniversary at the paper.  I've recently written a couple posts that were, well, "self-pity" is the term one reader used. Reading this again cured me of that. I've been very, very lucky, to have had this job. And despite all the changes in the industry—no more gift cards on our anniversaries—still feel blessed to do what I do. The stories following a few of these ledes have already been posted on the blog over the years; in that case, I have a link on the last few words, for those who feel like reading the full article.

     When Kenny Towers, long ago the editor of the Sun-Times, interviewed me for a job here, I was a magazine writer, freshly returned and still sunburned from weeks in Haiti, where I was writing an article on voodoo for The Atlantic.
     I was a little reluctant to join a newspaper—20 years ago Saturday—because I was not a hard news kind of guy.
     My main goal was not news, per se, but to find something unusual, perhaps even strange, and write about it. Especially important to me was trying to craft a good opening—"ledes" they're called in journalese—because if the beginning of a story is dull, it doesn't matter what comes later.
     So in addition to the $100 gift card my bosses were generous enough to give me, I thought I would celebrate my two decades here by revisiting the ledes from some of my favorite stories. Your indulgence is appreciated, as always:

                                                               - - -

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—We were driving through bauxite country. The earth was red with the mineral, and our Jeep bucked and rattled over deep red ruts in the unpaved road.
     The bone-rattling eased a bit when we came to the streets of a small coastal town. Turning a sharp corner, we were stopped by a group of 50 young men, dancing wildly to a driving syncopation of drums, rattles, and whistles.
     Some wore bright masks, or had painted their faces. They flowed around the Jeep, hopping up and down, pointing their fingers at us through the open windows and chanting, in Creole, what my driver interpreted as, "You will die, you will die, you will die."
                                                             — April 19, 1987

                                                            - - -

     Dr. Bryan Foy gently scoops up the human heart and holds it, as he would a newborn chick, with one hand cupped underneath, one hand over the top.
     It is 1:24 a.m. at Illinois Masonic Medical Center, 836 W. Wellington. Foy turns, takes a step, and places the heart in a metal bowl of frozen slush. Taking a pair of long tweezers, he peers into the various orifices of the heart. It looks good.
                                                                —July 17, 1988

                                                            - - -

     Everything changed at 1:35 p.m.
     After hours of coffee, pizza, chat and routine treatment of cut noses and sore throats, the call came into the Christ Hospital emergency room Saturday afternoon: Two men with serious gunshot wounds were on their way.
     An operating room at Christ, soon to be the only hospital serving the South Side with an advanced trauma unit, was readied for surgery. . . . Doctors, interns and nurses gathered to map out plans.
     "Why don't we make the chest wound the 99?" said Dr. Joe Mueller, giving priority to a 33-year-old man who police told them by phone had been shot just above the heart. . . .
     Paramedics rushed in with the first victim. In agony, he tried to jump off the gurney. A dozen doctors and nurses held him down. Nurses slit off his pants while doctors began the "90-second survey," rolling him on his side to check for other wounds.
     The big man, with homemade tattoos, cursed the doctors, then cried out in pain.
     "Hold my hand, hold my hand," he said, and a nurse gripped his fingers.
                                                             — Jan. 15, 1990

                                                               - - -

     At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, an alarm clock somewhere in a debris-strewn cornfield in Crest Hill began beeping, the call to a normal workday that was not to be, a day turned extraordinary by a tornado's vast, often bizarre power.
     The morning's light illuminated a skewed world. Objects thought of as massive were flung carelessly aside—refrigerators sat in the middle of fields, cars were not just smashed but tumbled and buffeted so they looked like crumpled balls of tinfoil.
                                                            —Aug. 30, 1990

                                                                 - - -

     They all end up here. All the clumsy drunks and the cocky felons; the innocent bystanders and the gang-bangers who flash the wrong sign. Everyone who dies in the street, dies by the grim forms of violence, dies alone and unknown.
     Whatever the cause, they are brought to the same address: 2121 West Harrison St. They are brought through the same side entrance to the same room: Room 174. They are weighed on the same big stainless steel scale. A mop and an industrial wringer bucket always wait nearby.
                                                           —Sept. 10, 1991

                                                                    - - -

     Jenny has sparkling blue eyes, a small, upturned nose and a cascade of curly blond hair tumbling over her right shoulder.
     With a rhinestone nail charm centered on each red fingernail, a dab of blush at her decolletage, and deftly applied make-up, it's easy to believe her when she says she spent three hours getting ready to go out.
     The shimmery blue and silver dress is custom-made, she says, and it's easy to believe that, too, since with the spike heels, Jenny tops out at perhaps 6-foot-7.
      "I'm a bigger girl, I know," she says, smiling radiantly. "I can't go out to a mall -- hey, I've got a football player's shoulders."
      So instead, Jenny has come here, to a banquet hall on the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the city's tiny, secretive transvestite community is having one of its many regular social functions. . . .
                                                          —May 24, 1992

                                                                   - - -

      Al Giacchetti is cruising for hookers.
      He slows his car on a Cicero side-street as two carelessly dressed women at the curb eye him. He stops the car. The two women saunter over.
     "Hey, honey," says a heavyset woman, who seems to be high, climbing in the car. The other woman is more cautious. "You're not the police are you?" she says, hanging back.
      "No, are you?" lies Giacchetti, who actually is the police, a member of the Cook County sheriff's police vice squad, helping wage law enforcement's nightly stalemate with prostitution.
                                                       —Aug. 21, 1995

                                                                      - - -

     Too bad you didn't stop by the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control and adopt that gray-and-white kitty I saw there the other day, because now Jennifer Harnisch has to kill it.
     And killing kitties is hard. . . .
                                                       —Oct. 11, 1998

                                                                      - - -

     The man could run. Everything else -- the fame, the money, the NFL records, the Super Bowl ring, the bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—flowed from that essential fact. Walter Payton ran beautifully, with power, grace, intelligence and a certain poetry that left onlookers amazed and hulking linemen grabbing at thin air. He died shortly past noon Monday at his South Barrington home after a yearlong battle with a disease from which he could not run. 
                                                      Nov. 2, 1999 

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2007

Friday, March 22, 2019

Dinner-Less Dinner’s roots in Chicago go back nearly 100 years

The Foodless Banquet, Drake Hotel, Dec. 21, 1921

     The quicker a published mistake can be corrected, the better.
     That might be an antique attitude, a musty journalistic convention that has outlived its utility in our online wordstorm, too much of which borders on pure hallucination.
     A year ago I wrote about a novel fundraising campaign, the “Dinner-Less Dinner” of The Ark, a Chicago social service agency aiding poor Jews, bringing food to shut ins and such. That costs money, and by collecting money for a dinner that is never held, they do away with the bother and expense of renting a ballroom, warming up chicken fingers, pampering Chaka Khan. They send out a disc of chocolate and a donation card. Supporters get to eat chocolate and do not have to dress up, go downtown, and decide how much to bid on a basket of gourmet pasta and olive oil at the Silent Auction. Everybody wins.  

     Last year I asked where the idea came from; executive director Marc J. Swatez said:
     “It goes back to the 1990s. We had a development director who saw an article about a New York charity that did it.”
     That’s as wrong as a carnival owner saying they got the idea for a Ferris wheel from some ride manufacturer in New York 20 years ago. There’s a richer story, right here in Chicago, as the folks at the Spertus Museum were happy to inform me.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Gnome Scale

     Frame of reference is so important. 
     Earlier this week, the Sun-Times had a cover story whose headline, "Why some neighbors hate 'Windy City Rehab,'" left me initially wondering how there could be a TV show shot in Chicago about addicts seeking sobriety without my knowing about it. 
     And then I began reading: Ohhh, that kind of rehab. Of houses. 
     There's usually humor to be found in that confusion. My pal Rob, a straight-laced NU classmate, was having his apartment gutted—his family moved to a hotel while the work was being done. During that time, I loved looking gravely at mutual friends and announcing, "Rob's going through a difficult rehab ... he had to move out of the house," and watching their faces. 
     Frame of reference can be less funny. Over another friend's house for dinner this week, and the cute little kids were brought out for introductions. 
    "How old are you?" my wife asked the little boy. He formed his index finger and thumb into an O so he would splay the other three fingers. He meant, "Three" but for a queasy moment the only thing I saw was the white power sign I've seen 25 times online. 
    One last example.
     We had a very windy day last week. And this is the funny part. My wife came home, saw that our three garden gnomes were down, and her first thought was this: that some mischievous child had kicked them over. Forgetting that our street hasn't had a mischievous child doing anything anywhere for about a dozen years, since our own boys were racing their bikes up and down the block.
     So her frame of reference: mischievous kids, and perhaps a tad of guilt over being the sort of people who prominently display garden gnomes. 
     I came home, saw the gnomes down, and my first thought was this: "the Beaufort Scale had been usurped." You know the Beaufort Scale, the 0-12 measure of wind force, a handy way to describe hurricanes and such.
    Always struck me as a little dry. The storm was a "9." Ho-hum. How much better to say, "Did you hear the wind last night? It was a 3 Gnomer for sure!"
     Here is where I would dig into the history of lawn gnomes. Fortunately, that has already been done—this article traces them back to Roman Times, with an emphasis on Germany and its tradition of trolls, etc., and a highlight that in 17th century England there was a job known as "ornamental hermit," whose duties were to live in a shack on the grounds of vast estates and go to seed in a picturesque fashion, to let their hair grow, their clothes decay, and lurk around in the distance. 
     You know, that doesn't sound like a half bad job. 


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

No quit in the boy

      Yesterday's post on quitting was something unusual. The back story is, I'm working on this big profile that's running Sunday, one of those rare collaborative efforts that requires conversations and team meetings and  careful calibration and fuss. There wasn't any gas in the tank for a post, so I grabbed this one I really intended to run should the day come when I decided to scale back the blog, made it less final, and put it up.
     It drew a good amount of reaction, and one line from regular reader Chris Wood resonated:
     "You're no quitter," he said. 

    And I thought, "Yeah, damn, he's right. I'm not." Which is a good thing, generally, I suppose. The unstated assumption that by not quitting you therefore go on to win. Pretty to think so. Growing up during the Vietnam War has to put a different spin on quitting—sometimes it's the smart thing to do, lest you end up Ahab and his crew on the bottom of the sea.  Sometimes quitting saves you from something worse. 
     In that famous line of Churchill's—"Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty" people tend to overlook the next few words, "never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” But when is giving up sensible? That's the sticking point.
     I'm the one who used to say, "You can never fail as a writer: you either quit or succeed." And I suppose the success is in the doing of the thing, which is certainly true in my case. You can still win without ever standing on a podium; in fact, many people are pulled down by the weight of their accolades. I've seen it happen.
     Thinking about this, I remembered a moment related to my older boy. We were in Indian Guides—the last year they used the name, speaking of quitting. So Ross was about 7. We were at a summer camp, with cabins and a dining hall. There was a climbing tower, a mammoth assemblage of lashed together telephone poles, 47 feet tall. They had rigged up two stations, to move the crowd along, and the boys would climb at each, belayed by a rope. What happened is the kid would get five or 10 feet, if that, then give up, tap out and be belayed back down to the ground.
     Not my boy. He would climb a few feet, cling there like a monkey, gather himself, then push onward. For, oh, half an hour. Meanwhile generations of kids at the other station—I hesitate to put a number on it—5, 10, 15—attempted the climb, gave up after a minute or less, and were returned to Earth.
     My kid, like me not gifted athletically, had something that can be even more useful.
     "There's no quit in that boy," I said, marveling, head tipped back, squinting up at him with the other dads. It seemed to take forever, and at times I wish he would quit. There was almost something unseemly in this outsized determination. Eventually he attained the summit—I'm tempted to say he was the only kid to do so, but I don't recall that as a fact. I only remember that he did while most kids didn't.
     He must have gotten that from somewhere. It is true that one of my favorite quotes from the Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson, is: "I will be conquered; I will not capitulate." That sounds like a plan though, now that I think of it, whether the end comes by defeat or surrender, the end result is still the same.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Everyone, everywhere, gets up, and goes home"

     Twitter continually gives you the opportunity to endorse the ideas of strangers without really thinking about them.
     I was scrolling through the assortment of news and trivia, bleats and bullying last week when I came upon a Tweet from someone I was familiar with, but not on Twitter: Yoko Ono, who I guess nowadays must be identified as the Japanese artist who married Beatle John Lennon:

     Sounds good by me. Because discouragement comes, efforts flag, especially toward the tail end of your 50s. Collapsing across the finish line just doesn't seem an option any more. There is no finish line. Death maybe.
     So you keep doing it and doing it and doing it until ... what? You pop? Discouragement comes up on your from behind and tackles you, hard, into the ground?

     Maybe there are other options. 
     There's a beautiful poem by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Brief—just a dozen lines—married to the cumbersome title “On the Strength of All Conviction and the Stamina of Love.”
     It begins:

Sometimes I think
we could have gone on.
All of us. Trying. Forever.
     As a writer, I really value the "we" and the "all of us" in the above. We are not isolated at our looms and wheels and keyboards, but together, a cohort, a mass, a team. Some doing better than others, sure, but all of us unified in our dreams, our effort.
     Then Hecht moves the ball.
But they didn’t fill
the deserts with pyramids.
They just built some. Some.
     Changing the dynamic. We aren't the artisans we fancy ourselves to be; we're slaves. Rolling the giant slabs of our ambition up these improvised ramps. Our sun-burnt cheeks pressed hard against the rough surface of the task, heaving with all our might. The idea of a pyramid-chocked desert seems fantastic, futile, silly.
     Then we leap from ancient Egypt to today in a single bound.

They’re not still out there,
building them now. Everyone,
everywhere, gets up, and goes home.
     Which sounds so enticing. The negation of a whimsical image straight from Billy Collins—all of those workers still out there, Giza abuzz with activity, masses of slaves, ropes, pulleys, new pyramids going up to this day, somehow overlooked by the indifferent world. 
     And that final "home"—who doesn't want to go home? "The place where," as Robert Frost said so heartbreakingly, "when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
     Honestly, I read the poem and, inspired, thought of posting it here and simply quitting the blog cold after five years. Here, figure this one out, good-bye. 
Because whatever the world wants, this obviously is not it. Five years is plenty. 
      But then, I'm doing it for myself, because it's fun and not terribly demanding, really. I'd miss it. And maybe you'd miss it too. So on we go. Leading to the end of Hecht's poem, something of a rebuke, a twist to make us think harder about what has gone before. 
Yet we must not
Diabolize time. Right?
We must not curse the passage of time. 
     Why not? Time certainly won't care. Maybe because doing so is futile. There's a lot of that going around. Some days, everything is futile.
     Anyway, that's enough for today. See you tomorrow. And tomorrow. And tomorrow after that....

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Fight hard for Judge Jeanine"

     The law has many concepts useful for the non-legal world. One of my favorites is "stipulate." When opposing sides in a case agree on a certain fact, or set of facts, they can stipulate those facts, meaning—if I understand correctly—that they don't have to argue over them. 
     "We will stipulate that my client was indeed in the store the morning it was robbed, but will show that he left without taking anything."
     Privately, I stipulate situations because I don't want to belabor them. Donald Trump is a liar, a bully and a fraud. This is clear to everyone it is ever going to be clear to, and anyone who doesn't see that by now never will. There is no need to wave around various examples of new lies, new examples of his beating up on the weak, fresh instances of chicanery. We get it. We've gotten it. We're going to get it. 
    Stipulating this allows a person thoroughly disgusted with our nation's dive into shame to divert his gaze from the oozing and grotesque horror unfolding hourly in Washington or, on the weekends, Florida. There is life outside of Trump's little shoebox diorama of a world, and I want to look at that. 
     There is a risk that the president will be tuned out so thoroughly, that the utter wrongness of his words and actions will be muted to a degree that is dangerous. We don't want to risk accepting his behavior by silence. We don't want to ignore the horror, repetitive though it may be. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to look, on general principles. As a patriotic duty. 
      Thus let me post a trio of his tweets Sunday, coming to the defense of a Fox host who was canned after suggesting that Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar couldn't be a good American because she wears a hijab. To read the president's tweets in chronological order, start from the bottom.

     This, 48 hours after 50 Muslims were slaughtered in New Zealand by a white nationalist who praised Trump before committing his atrocity.
      Judge Pirro was a Fox ranter—I can't comment on her because I've never seen her in action. But she seems to be among those mirroring Trump's thoughts back to him. Notice how the president of the United States calls for a TV host to be re-instated—itself a mile beneath the dignity of the presidency in normal times—then blames Fox News dumping her on the "Radical Left Democrats"—if they had control over Fox, one assumes the network would be sucked into the gaping hellmouth that opens up under it.
     In the second, a common theme: noticing the hatred they foment, against Muslims, against Hispanics, against whatever victim they've got their sights on at the moment, is "political correctness," a pearl-clutching collapse on the fainting couch of over-refinement.
    "Be strong & prosper, be weak & die." Where did he get that? It sounds like a snippet of Klingon philosophy that lodged in the Trumpian brain after watching "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." 

     And the third tweet. "Your competitors are jealous." Envy is a major motivating factor in the Trump world, second perhaps only to fear, so of course they see it everywhere they look. So many times I've heard from readers who can't wrap their head around opposing Trump for the aforementioned lies, bullying and fraud—it's just crrrrazy to them—nor perceive his valueless, pitiable life, but, dazzled by the gold-plated excess he wallows in, declare that those who oppose him are just "jealous" of his lux lifestyle. Like being Donald Trump were not a fate I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. 
     See why Trump is best ignored? Because if you don't, you have to think about this shit. And honestly, we haven't even parsed half of his grotesquely petty and sickening tweets on Sunday. With more certain to come today. I suppose we have to look, as punishment, for being part of a nation that permitted this. Then we have to look away. It's heartbreaking. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Memento mori

     Rare is the weekend where I have to work. Well, except for Sunday mornings, when I usually write my Monday column. Except not this morning, because I'm so busy writing this big important project for the paper, the column got pushed aside. 
    I don't want to ignore the blog post though. However ... I can't say that after a day grinding at this task ideas are straining in their seats, waving their arms, going "Ooo, ooo! Me! Me!" 
     In addition. Maybe the slaughter of 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand makes the whole effort seem extra pointless. Social media, so stuffed with words as it is. Words, words, words. Suddenly words seem ... I almost said "cheap." But they're worse than cheap, aren't they? They're free, and worth every penny.
    Enough that I don't feel like adding more to them. 
    I do, however, have this photo I do not believe I have posted before. My wife and I were in Paris two years ago, visiting out oldest son at the Sorbonne, and we passed this florist on the Rue Monge in the 5th Arrondissement. Apt for spring, don't you think? Lovely to look at, colorful comfort in light of all the grim news. With perhaps a bit of apt symbolism tucked in, if you look hard.
    Oh okay: they're cut flowers. Which means the clock is ticking. Beautiful now. But later, soon, not so much.  Enjoy them while you can.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #31

     The Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike Monday, and on Friday Linda Spadlowski drove in from the far Northwest suburbs to join them.  She is not a musician—she's a patron, a paraprofessional at an elementary school in Carol Street. 
    "I came to lend my support to the musicians," she told me. "The orchestra is one of the best in the world, and its musicians should be treated with the respect they deserve."
      We spoke for a few minutes—I was just blundering by, heading to the train from the Hilton, where I had attended the the ACLU luncheon, guest of my friend Howard Suskin at Jenner & Block. Picketing is tiresome, and I was impressed that a concert-goer would go to the effort; it speaks to the devotion that patrons have to the music, particularly since this was her first year as a subscriber. 
    These sympathetic thoughts were in my head as I walked away. Then, as if to ground me in the greater reality, a remark from a man next to me cut through the Michigan Avenue background noise.
     "I'm supposed to feel sympathetic for folks playing the goddamn fiddle?" a man exclaimed. I stole sly glance to my right. Enormous cantilevered gut. Brush mustache. Terrified slip of a wife. Young daughter he was dragging along by her arm. 
     The music is out there, free to all. But not everybody can hear the music.  The CSO has cancelled its scheduled concerts for this weekend.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Don’t be scared; they’re only homeless young people — they don’t bite

     At the Crib, the Night Ministry’s youth shelter in the basement of the LakeView Lutheran Church on West Addison, there is a 9 p.m. ritual that can break the hardest heart.
     There is room for only 21 foam mattresses on the floor of the single-room shelter. So whenever more than 21 young people — mostly members of the LGBTQ community — are seeking refuge from the streets, they draw lots. The losers must leave. There are tears, embraces, couples sometimes split, and it is not unknown for one homeless youth to give his place to someone who needs it more. I’ve seen it happen.
     So when I first heard that the Night Ministry plans to move the Crib to a sprawling industrial building at 1735 N. Ashland, I assumed the idea is to accommodate more kids.
     They won’t. They’ll still house 21, to preserve a homey environment. The Crib will, however, introduce a new level of luxury.
     “There will actually be beds and not mattresses on the floor,” said the Night Ministry’s Burke Patten, the benefit of having several dedicated rooms. “People won’t be sleeping and recreating in the same space.
     Maybe. The new location is leased, but its use as a shelter needs government approval; the Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals will hear the case on Friday.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Poisoned Ivy

     So that's why my boys didn't get into Harvard...
     Because the slots that should have gone to them were snapped up by the spawn of rich celebrities who bribed coaches to pretend their couch potatoes were athletes, and other venal acts of fraud and criminality.
     A spot in a top college projects whoever snags it to the fast-track to success. But those exclusive colleges bat away 95 out of every 100 students who apply, forcing them through an obstacle course where all sorts of secondary hurdles besides academic excellence suddenly loom in importance. If the college has accepted kids from 49 states, and needs someone from South Dakota so they can boast students "from all 50 states," then suddenly South Dakotans go to the top of the stack. If the band needs a xylophonist, suddenly xylophonists start to sparkle. Not to mention all the attempts to create a diverse student body. As Orwell said in Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Not to forget money: they have to remember to let some students in whose parents can actually pay the tuition. For starters.
    As Frank Bruni pointed out in Wednesday's New York Times, it isn't that much of a stretch from giving a college $2 million and having your kid waived in—legal!—to bribing a coach to pretend he's on the water polo team—illegal!
     I don't want to excuse the underhanded tricks used by parents to try to jam their kids into the best colleges.  It hasn't been so many years since my boys went through this, and I remember the frantic, what-can-I-do?!? approach to their quest.
Harvard Lampoon (photo by Harrison Roberts)
     But I had a few advantages. First, I had sought the advice of Bill Savage, NU literature professor, master of all things Chicago and, not incidentally, someone involved with the college selection machinery. He gave me what I consider the No. 1, key bit of advice for a student or parent contemplating the college process, which is: Don't get your heart set on a certain school. That's a recipe for disappointment. What happens is, a student, or her parents, or both, decide that they don't get into Boola Boola University then their lives will be ruined. When in fact they might have a better experience at a different college.  
     He also counseled against the general, I'm-gonna-die tone of despair that parents bring to the process. That doesn't help. Important decisions, yes. Key forms and essays and hoops to leap through or, often, not. But the whole upper echelon college thing is also a framework of values that is only of vast importance if you believe it is of vast importance. Donald Trump went to the Wharton School, and look how he turned out.
     Oh, and the boys didn't get into Harvard because neither of them applied. I can't speak for them, but that might be my fault. We visited Cambridge when they were in their mid-teens, and I steered us over to the Harvard Lampoon castle, a quirky building supposedly paid for by William Randolph Hearst and designed as kind of Dutch revival sphinx. I explained how, while researching my pranks book, I had spent a few days there happily poring over their archives, and what fine fellows the Lampooners were.
    Our timing was off. We arrived during some kind of Bacchic revel—maybe because it was Friday. A round metal pool had been set up in front of the castle, students were splashing around in it, drunk, and firing off fireworks. My boys were aghast. We fled.
     Just as well. The older boy went to Pomona, a liberal college in California routinely ranked higher than Harvard. And the younger boy went to Northwestern, applying early admission, because that's where his dad went. Bribes were not necessary.