Wednesday, June 30, 2021

GOP tries to sucker punch U.S. history

Muhammad Ali at the 1966 Bud Billiken Parade (Sun-Times Photo)

     Chicago is a boxing town. Or was.
     That shouldn’t be news, but I suspect it is, to some. The three most important heavyweight champions of the world in the 20th century all lived in Chicago. Jack Johnson bought a home for his mother on South Wabash Avenue in 1910, then moved in himself in 1912. Joe Louis lived at 4320 S. Michigan Ave. and won his first title at Comiskey Park in 1937. As a teen, Muhammad Ali won his first fights as a Golden Gloves champion here and later lived at several locations on the South Side.
     I could share inspiring tales — the luxurious life Johnson led, the silver spittoons at CafĂ© de Champion, the club he owned on West 31st Street. Louis’ humility in the face of global fame. How Ali would stop his Rolls Royce and shadow box kids on the street.
     Pause here, and consider how learning about this historic connection makes you feel about Chicago. Proud? Happy? Eager to know more?
     I hope so. Because I left out something crucial. Johnson, Louis and Ali were — stop the presses — Black. Their race was in no way incidental to their athletic careers and personal lives. Just the opposite; it was pivotal. Because of his race, Johnson was at first prevented from fighting for the title; he had to go to Australia to do it. Johnson was then vilified for winning, and for dating white women. He was hung in effigy at State and Walton streets.
     Louis had to act humble, trying to avoid the trouble Johnson got into. When named Cassius Clay, Ali was initially sneered at by the public as a poetry-spewing clown. After he found his Muslim faith and changed his name, white America refused to use it, as if he wasn’t a man who could call himself whatever he liked. Nobody objected to “Bob Dylan.”
     Does the second, racial element of my boxing tale wreck it for you? Make you feel small? Or does it, as I believe, enlarge the story, nudging it from a mere gloss toward the complexity that real history demands?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Say goodbye to all that.

     My Air Pods Pro were acting up, the right one anyway. So I jumped into an Apple support chat, and was walked through a few tests by a friendly human—at least I think it was a human—somewhere in the world. The problem was not fixed, and he—she? it?—suggested I make an appointment at my local Apple Store. Which I did, on the spot.
     Ninety minutes later I was walking through Northbrook Court, or what's left of it. Formerly a lux shopping mall, now a ghost town. Empty storefronts displaying items from those few stores still in business, or crafts from charities. A few marginal businesses—custom t-shirt shops and such—that would have never made the cut in the mall before.  
The was some life: a few knots of teens wandered about, or sat in the massage chairs still set out. A quartet of old ladies playing cards. And a line of people outside the Apple Store. A helpful associate, Tom, took my Air Pods for further tests, and told me to come back in 20 minutes.
     Wandering the place, we came upon the shell that once held Lord & Taylor. Never a department store that re
sonated with me, neither the Cleveland institutions of my youth, Higbee's, Halle's, The May Company, nor the apex of Chicago shopping, Marshall Field's, nor its competitor, though I thought of it more as a handmaiden, a subordinate, Carson, Pirie, Scott.
     It was rather in the realm of stores from other cities—Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus—that had outposts here. There was something feminine about Lord & Taylor. A women's store that also sold men's clothing.
     So it wasn't with grief that I stepped into the void where Lord & Taylor used to be. Rather ... a disassociation. Something less than shock, more than indifference. A quiet hmm, oh yes, all these big department stores are going away. A whiff of exploration, of stepping foot on another planet, of realization, discovery. This was happening while those boxes were piling up on the front porch. Those were the death of this, hastened by the COVID virus. I went shopping at exactly one clothing store over the past 18 months, just recently, a Father's Day visit to L.L. Bean in Old Orchard. Honestly, it's hard to imagine being in a situation where a plaid shirt won't do. I still have my tux, but if I had to put it on to appear at the fancy Neil Steinberg Tribute and Award Dinner at the Drake ballroom, I'd think twice about going to the fuss. Why bother? Who'd care anymore? Who could possibly care? All that seems so long ago.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Could Florida condo collapse happen here?

                   Baths of Caracalla, by Aegidius Sadeler II (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Humans are by nature cautious. We are the descendants of those who fled at the snap of a twig, not those who shrugged and told themselves, “That can’t be a saber-toothed tiger coming; I’ll just keep eating these delicious berries ...”
     Even today, when we read stories of tragedy, the tendency is to try to distance ourselves from whatever bad thing is going on: that’s far away, happening to very different people under very different circumstances than our own.
     Which is why Thursday’s collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, with some 150 residents missing, buried in the rubble, can be so terrifying to Chicagoans who live in apartment buildings: it’s hard to dismiss as a Florida phenomenon.
     “I have a bad feeling in my gut about this and those sort of buildings in Chicago,” wrote one reader who lived for years in a high-rise on Sheridan Road. “Chicago has the additional worries of corruption of inspectors and building materials quality in addition to the weather concerns.”
     That’s quite a charge, and I wouldn’t pass it along if I didn’t remember “Operation Crooked Code,” in 2008, when the feds probed bribery in Chicago’s buildings and zoning departments, coming up with a dozen convictions.
     Immediately after the collapse, the Department of Buildings pointed out, “Chicago has one of the strictest building codes in the country.” Correct, if disingenuous. The issue isn’t whether those strict codes exist, but were they enforced when a building was constructed? Or did the inspector look the other way?

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Sunday, June 27, 2021

Flashback 1997: Gone fishin'—though it's hardly a lazy day

The Surveyor in 1997 (Photo from Sun-Times files)

      I'm going out onto the lake for a story later this week, which got me thinking about previous episodes of aquatic reportage. This is from the brief period when I was the environment reporter, and my 12 hours on the Surveyor probably constitutes the most physically unpleasant thing I've ever done for a story. When I phoned the fishery ahead of time, I remember asking if I should bring a lunch. "Bring a big one," Larry Champion said. "Because we're going to eat it." I scoffed that I had watched autopsies at the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, and was made of stronger stuff. But he was right. The lake was so rough, at one point I clamped my eyes closed and tried to wish myself ashore. It didn't work.

     Just after 4 a.m., and Captain Larry Champion is walking through Joe's Fisheries, the last commercial fishing fleet operating out of Chicago.
     "I'm going to wake up my Indian friend," he says, going to where his first—and only—mate, Jerry Kingbird, a Chippewa Indian from Minnesota, sleeps in minimal comfort.
     Together they load ice into the Surveyor, a 48-foot steel bulldog of a boat. "Fleet" is a grand term for the three battered and aging boats Joe's Fisheries runs. Today the Surveyor, built in 1944, is the only one venturing onto the lake, leaving the dock at 1400 W. Cortland in search of the elusive chub. The stars are still out. The lights along the river throw gold on black water. Somewhere, a siren.
     "We shouldn't get our butts kicked half bad today," says Champion, 29, waiting for the lake locks to slide open. The day before, 10-foot waves forced them to turn back without hauling in their nets. The state inspector who rode with them in the raw weather is a no-show today.
     The Surveyor is fishing for bloater chub because chubs are the only fish allowed to be taken commercially. The inspector was there to see how many non-chubs ended up in the boat's net. Perch were legal until last spring, when the state banned taking them, citing low populations.
     "It's hard to make a living just on chub," Champion says. "Fishing has gotten so political."
     Once the lighthouse is passed, the water springs to life. Lake Michigan is the roughest lake in the world, and today eight-foot swells rock the boat like a toy—one moment the pilot's window looks up at the sky, the next, down at churning water. Jets of spray explode through the scuppers, as the boat rolls 40 degrees to either side of horizontal.
     "It's like a washing machine out there now," Champion says. "But by this afternoon, she'll be all right."
     The chubs are waiting 12 miles from shore, a churning world unfamiliar to shore-hugging summer boaters. The downtown skyline is a faint thumb-long strip of grey stubble.
     At 7:40 a.m. Champion cuts the engines to half speed. "See it?" he yells to Kingbird. Metal doors are slid back. A yellow buoy is hauled in, then an anchor chain, then two and a half miles of monofilament net.

Bloater chubs (Sun-Times photo)
     That's a long net, hauled in a few feet at a time, by a winch called a lifter. The process takes five hours of non-stop effort. The fish come up in twos and threes. About 90 percent are dead—the net was set six days previous—and have bloated up (hence the name, "bloater chubs"). Some are very dead; split, spilling their viscera. It is not pretty.
     A yard-wide steel table runs the length of Surveyor's lower deck. Champion stands near the front, by an open hatch, and as the net comes off the lifter, he pops the chubs with a spike to deflate them and free them from the net. Kingbird lays the nets carefully in a dozen black tubs.
     Because the nets are set at a certain depth—about 225 feet—most of the fish are chub. One in 15 or 20 is a stray trout or burbot. Other things do come up, occasionally. Champion once hauled up what seemed to be a human thigh bone. What did he do? He makes a thumbing motion, over the side.
     The record for a bad haul is five fish. A good day is 400 or 500 pounds.     "Some days there's only water in your net," says Champion, paid on commission. "Like a salesman; you don't sell no shoes, you don't make no money." Still, he always wanted to fish.
     "As a kid I thought this would be a great way to make a living," he says. "I don't have to deal with the public, out here by yourself with Mother Nature. But now it has become so political."
     Champion would like to be able to fish for perch again—something vigorously opposed by the state's army of 800,000 sport fishermen.
     "Perch should never be open again for commercial fishing," said Henry Palmisano, an advocate for Chicago sport fishermen. "We don't commercially fish anything other than chub, and that should be it."
     At 1 p.m. they pull up the second anchor chain and buoy. Now it's time to put the net back. Champion turns the boat around. He and Kingbird don big rubber gloves. The net, having come in the front, goes out the back, over an inverted U-shaped "spreader," zipping out at five feet a second.
     Champion stands at the boxes and feeds out the nets, chub scales flying off like iridescent snow. As soon as one box empties, Champion kicks it away and yanks the next box over. Kingbird stands by the spreader, trying to keep the net open wide. Neither speaks. Neither wears a watch or buttons or rings— once the net caught on Champion's watch and yanked him off the boat.
     The net takes 40 minutes to go back into the water. "Now it's boogie time," Champion says. With the autopilot steering the boat toward Chicago, the two pour the fish onto the steel table and begin gutting with chub knives. The boat pitches and rolls. Champion once cut his finger to the bone.
     They get back to Joe's Fisheries about 4:30 p.m. -- nearly 12 hours after they started.
     Fishing chub is an exhausting, smelly, dirty, wet living, but it's still a living, and the fishermen plan to do it as long as they can. "This is the only thing I've ever done and the only thing I'll probably ever do," Champion says.
     They weigh their catch back at the fishery—565 pounds of chubs that, after being smoked, will fetch $3.35 per pound wholesale. All in all, a good day.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 17, 1997

Gerald Kingbird (left) and Larry Champion unload chubs onto a scale for weighing at Joe’s Fisheries. (Photo for the Sun-Times by Phil Velasquez).

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Northwest Side notes: Why are we so irritable?

     Coincidental that both Northwest Side Bureau chief Caren Jeskey, and I were both thinking of Indian spiritualism yesterday. Hearing Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest that India needs to make more toys, I was musing how cool it would be to have an elephant-headed Ganesh the Remover of Obstacles action figure, maybe with various outfits, like Barbie, and whether Mattel could offer a line of various Hindu deities. Or would that be sacrilege? Meanwhile Caren was thinking of Gandhi and the ideal life. Although this is not the first appearance of his grandson in EGD: I met him seven years ago, and posted the link in her report below.

     How can we get along as a city, a nation, as a world, when we can’t get along with the people next to us? Partners, neighbors, family, colleagues? The person in the next lane on the road? We honk and weave and forget that there is a person in the other car. Perhaps even someone we know. It’s lost on us in those heated moments that the very person we are flipping off (literally or in our minds) may be the same person we hang out with at the dog park.
     What is is about us that makes us so irritable towards others? No wonder we can’t seem to come together on grander levels such as creating a harmonious world community. Will we ever learn to share resources and work communally? In a me against you society few are happy. Where has the art of forgiveness and compromise gone?
     In 1991 Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson Arun Gandhi founded the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence ( They offer “training in skills such as Nonviolent Communication, meditation, cultural humility, and experiential interconnectedness, and foster responses to systemic violence… through projects focused on urban agriculture, racial healing work, and restorative approaches to conflict.”
     You may have heard that Gandhi is said to have abused his wife. Here is what he has to say about it in his autobiography: “I forgot myself, and the spring of compassion dried up in me. I caught her by the hand, dragged the helpless woman to the gate, which was just opposite the ladder, and proceeded to open it with the intention of pushing her out. The tears were running down her cheeks in torrents, and she cried: 'Have you no sense of shame? Must you so far forget yourself? Where am I to go? I have no parents or relatives here to harbour me. Being your wife, you think I must put up with your cuffs and kicks? For Heaven's sake behave yourself and shut the gate. Let us not be found making scenes like this!’”
     “I put on a brave face, but was really ashamed, and shut the gate. If my wife could not leave me, neither could I leave her. We have had numerous bickerings, but the end has always been peace between us. The wife, with her matchless powers of endurance, has always been the victor… The incident in question occurred in 1898, when I had no conception of brahmacharya. It was a time when I thought that the wife was the object of the husband's lust, born to do her husband's behest, rather than a helpmate, a comrade and a partner in the husband's joys and sorrows. It was in the year 1900 that these ideas underwent a radical transformation, and in 1906 they took concrete shape. But of this I propose to speak in its proper place. Suffice it to say that with the gradual disappearance in me of the carnal appetite, my domestic life became and is becoming more and more peaceful, sweet, and happy.”
     One of the original feminists, though it took him a while.
     Per Wikipedia, “Bramacharya is a concept within Indian religions that literally means to stay in conduct within one's own soul. In Yoga, Hinduism and Jainism it generally refers to a lifestyle characterized by sexual continence or complete abstinence.”
     Our desires often trump our goodness, our intentions, our permanent values, our purity. We work to stay balanced, to not go overboard, and to ease into a life that makes sense for us. Where we can have fun and express ourselves, but we also temper ourselves where needed.
     Enter the popularity of yoga. There are eight limbs in this ancient practice. The physical practice, asana, is but one limb and the only limb most Westerners study. The others involve our attitudes towards ourselves, others and the environment, and our meditation work. Yoga sutras lay this out for us. The second yoga sutra states that yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. What does this mean? To me, it means that we reach a place of equanimity. We can see the good and bad in the world. We can see what we like and don’t like about ourselves, our relations, and the world around us; yet we learn to respond creatively rather than reacting harshly.
     Being human is not easy. Facing mortality is not fun. We will all decline and then die, yet we take ourselves so seriously. Our egos rear up and say “me!” “Mine!” “I want!” If we are able to, we can throw money at and manipulate the world to appease our desires. When that happens we get accustomed to having what we want when we want it. The problem with that is that others can leave us. Money sources can dry up. Even if they don’t, if we do not practice kindness, compassion, and restraint, our so-called loved ones may not love us all that much.
     I believe the key to happiness is radical self-care and authenticity. If we are rested, pain-free or coping with pain in a healthy way, and using tools of self-soothing rather than checking-out and neglecting ourselves, we have a better chance at leaning into our mortal lives with grace.
     I have not mastered this, but I am seeking to get closer to the place where my priorities are in order and I can keep things simple rather than rallying against the world, or resisting the reality of my human existence. From this place, I can see myself clearly and then make plans to live the best life that I can live. If we all lived our best lives I bet we’d get along with each other better.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The mayor isn’t very good at this, is she?

     “Rahm Emanuel was abrasive,” my savvy Chicago pal said. “But if he’s sandpaper, Lori Lightfoot is a belt sander.”
     I don’t know about that. I always thought of Rahm as more oily than caustic, a salubrious insider slithering through the drain pipes of power, popping up through a grate to lubricate a momentary ally, then dissolving into the gutter with a wet splat, and gone.
     Now our current mayor, well, I don’t have much direct personal experience to bring to the table. Lightfoot sat down for an hour with me and my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick for a profile when she was running in 2019. Lightfoot struck me then not as caustic but guarded, measured, deliberate. Not personable in the look-you-in-the-eye-and-ask-about-your-dog sense. Not much eye contact, really.
     But then, Lightfoot isn’t a politician. Her campaign chairman told me as much while we chatted at an ACLU luncheon. A reluctant campaigner, he said, she had to be dragged into a room of potential supporters, where she’d stand, regarding them with disgust, until poked. Then she’d murmur something and flee.
     Voters claim to like that. They seem to like electing officials who aren’t politicians. Yet they wouldn’t hire a plumber that way, based on complete lack of familiarity with plumbing.
     We saw the result again at Wednesday’s bizarre, amateur hour City Council meeting. Maybe we’re used to Rahm, and Rich Daley before him, who turned the Council into a trained seal act, rearing up on command, clapping their flippers together and barking approval in unison in return for a herring delivered in private.

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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Inoperable bollard

     "That's a lovely view," I said, settling on a park bench on the trail ringing the Basin in Northbrook. "I just want to sit here and look at that bollard."
     It was a joke, of course. My wife and I sometimes cap off our workdays by walking on The Trail Through Time, an expanse of prairie that Northbrook has cannily crafted out of wasteland. Beyond it are soccer fields, a skateboard park, the new rec center, and the Basin, a storm water catchment area made into an attractive field.
     "Is it good-looking?" she said, or words to that effect.
     "No," I admitted. "I just like saying the word, 'bollard.'" Perhaps not a familiar term to everybody. "A wooden or iron post, on a ship, a whale-boat or a quay," the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, "for securing ropes to."
     Or a concrete post concealing a light on a suburban path.
     The joke, in case it doesn't translate beyond the moment, is to take in this beautiful expansive view—the photograph doesn't capture it—and focus on the little squat post lost in shadow in the foreground. Then again, I'm not sure it was funny, even then.
     Our walk takes about an hour, over the train tracks, past St. Norbert's. We encounter people with dogs, families on bikes, numerous redwing blackbirds. We don't normally pause to sit. But we'd gotten up early and were tired. I didn't see the bollard until we sat down.
    I took out my phone and snapped a picture of it.     
     "Maybe I'll do a blog post," I said.
     "You did one already," she replied.
     More than five years ago. When I noticed a sign, "Operable Bollards" on the campus of Northwestern. Not exactly the most dramatic post. But she remembered it. That's flattering. One wants this stuff to stick in mind.


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Time will blow away all that you possess


     My mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, owned six roasters.
     You know, those large oval roasting pans, heavy black steel with removable lids. Speckled with white dots, for some obscure aesthetic reason.
     A fact her family discovered after she died, 10 years ago, and we began to go through her house. Roasters stashed in closets, on shelves in the basement.
     I wish I could have asked her: “Why so many?” Though the answer would almost certainly have been a chuckle and a wave of the hand. Our guess was it had to do with the Great Depression.
     She did cook a lot.
     We kept one roaster that reminded me of a World War I dreadnought and unloaded the rest for a couple of dollars apiece at the estate sale. We never use it, and I wonder if the others are also just being stored until they’re on the move again, passed along to new owners, down through the generations. I hope at some point somebody roasts something.
     We are, many of us, surrounded by such enormous shoals of stuff that its utter superfluousness seldom occurs to us unless the stuff’s owner dies, and we’re in charge of deciding what to keep (not much) and what to give away (most everything).
     Or some natural disaster suddenly sweeps it into the street. When I heard Monday that a tornado had hit Naperville and Woodridge, my first impulse was to race there and talk to residents picking through their devastated homes.
     Because I still remember, vividly, Plainfield after the tornado hit in 1990. An older couple going through their flattened home, finding a teacup, intact, and just laughing. They were glad to have the teacup, plucked out of the chewing jaws of nature.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Flash: Most reader letters are nice.

     I believe I've been guilty of promulgating an untruth, or at least a misperception.
     Over the years, I tend to share outrageous, vile, deranged reader feedback, for several reasons. To reduce the sting by casting it in hue of connoisseurship—look what an amazing specimen of insult this is. To amuse my non-crazy readers. To humble brag about being made of strong enough stuff to take such abuse. And perhaps because it can be seriously funny.
     In doing so, I've created the impression that I write my column in a hailstorm of scorn, and that really isn't the case. First, because contempt tends to come from a certain small subset of masochistic regulars, who keep reading while purporting to despise everything I write. Those go straight to spam and are usually never seen, never mind read. Still, they write, continually, sometimes for years.
     And second because I gets lots of appreciative email, much more than the negative stuff. Much gratitude, many kind words, Which I don't share because, well, first so as not to brag. Showing off praise, it's unseemly, is it not? I don't think I've ever posted a bunch of complimentary emails, though I do admit occasionally forwarding a particularly positive note off to my boss. "See, SOMEBODY likes this stuff!" 
     Besides, praise is, well, seldom quite as interesting as condemnation, in the same way that Inferno is a far better read than Purgatorio or Paradiso.
     After my Monday column taking aim at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for their ham-handed attempt to influence Joe Biden by barring him from communion unless he recants his heresies, several readers commiserated about the bulk of nasty mail I must be getting. On the contrary. I was struck by just how positive most were, and a number of the remarks were quite witty, the top by far being from John F., who writes, "The Eucharist is not a 'dog biscuit' given for good behavior." 
     Margaret B. left the church half a century ago due to its entrenched sexism. "What did it for me was Father," she writes. "It still drives me nuts that priests are 'Father' but nuns are 'Sister.'”
     I never thought of that before, but she's right.
     The open manner with which people talked about their faith was impressive.
     "I used to explain my staying with the church by using the crazy uncle's explanation that there are a few bad apples in every family but most of us are good and just ignore the goofy relatives," writes Christine P. "But 2016 changed everything for me. When the conservative folks thought it was okay to support the prior president on one issue and ignore all his other dangerous and harmful qualities, my heart sank. To single out Biden as the bad guy, Biden who really cares to make a positive and caring difference in the world, makes me so sad. If everyone truly examined their souls, none of us would be worthy of receiving communion."
     There are dozens more, and I won't belabor the point. I'm very grateful for readers who take the time to respond, to compose their thoughts, and often am educated and enriched by what they have to say. I try to answer every well-intentioned email back, while ignoring completely the mean, the sarcastic and the deranged.  I thought I ought to set the record straight. Not that there really is a record. But you know what I mean. Most of you, anyway.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bishops use sacraments to pressure Biden

     One beauty of being Jewish is that you can’t get excommunicated, Spinoza notwithstanding. Sure, there are various boards of rabbis here and there. But no central authority, the way Catholics have their U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nor do Jews have sacraments, like communion, that can be withheld as punishment for apostasy. The way the bishops voted overwhelmingly Friday to draft “a formal statement” forbidding Catholic public officials like President Joe Biden from receiving the eucharist if they insist on supporting one particular legal American right that conflicts with Catholic theology: abortion.
     The most important aspects of Judaism: lighting candles on Friday night, atoning on Yom Kippur, pushing back against dogma, can’t be yanked away by some board of overlords.
     In fact, being heretical is almost the Jewish brand. That’s why the faith is so studded with people like Spinoza, or Freud, or Einstein, or Lenny Bruce. When my son came back from sophomore year and gravely informed me he is questioning the value of his religion, I smiled and replied, “Buddy, I hate to tell you, but doubting Judaism is the most Jewish thing you can do at this point in your life.”
     Yes, like all faiths, Jews have our own strong ultra-Orthodox wing, where wearing a pearl gray Borsalino hat will get you in hot water, never mind pushing back against doctrine. But the Hassidim have about as much influence on mainstream Judaism as the Pennsylvania Amish have on the Philadelphia club scene. They do encourage weak tea Jews such as myself to say certain prayers, but are smart enough not to try to punish us if we don’t. Which I respect, even while their lifestyle puzzles me. You’ve got one life. Are you really going to spend it dressed for 18th century Vilnius and arguing obscure points of Deuteronomy dietary law? Don’t let me stop you. It’s a free country.
     And I’d like to keep it that way. Which is why we need to resist the bishops, and remind them their authority ends at the church door. Yes, they are free to define the contours of their own faith. But to inflict a special penalty especially on government leaders is not religion but politics. Not just their business, but ours too. It isn’t as if regular lay Catholics are being punished for their beliefs, not anymore. If some Board of Rabbis were to announce that U.S. senators couldn’t eat latkes at Hanukkah unless they keep Kosher, the ridicule would be Biblical.

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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Flashback 2000: "Scarier than scary stories"


     I heard a noise downstairs Saturday and went to investigate. It was my younger son, freshly 24, stopping by for a visit, a quick lunch, stock up on a few groceries and then back into the city, where he now lives. 
     I can't tell you how happy that makes me, to have him pop by like that. A marvelous pre-Father's Day gift, though as icing on the cake, he'll circle back to my brother- and sister-in-law's, where we'll eat brisket and then go out into the park for a game of catch and a Rocky Patel.
      It might have worked out otherwise, as this column from 22 years ago reminds us. Every parent knows that only constant vigilance and the occasional timely spot of luck stands between any given moment and disaster. Happy Father's Day, hug 'em if you've got 'em.

     The shorthand I've come up with to convey the entire parenthood experience to my childless, noncomprehending friends is this: "Being a parent is realizing that your entire world can choke to death on a penny."
     I meant it as a glib line, a wink at the frantic safety-making that parents usually put themselves through.
     Before our oldest could roll off his colorful blankie, we had already brought in a safety consultant to walk through our place, pointing out hazards. We dutifully installed all sorts of netting and wooden gates and coffee table edge guards and window locks and electrical socket covers.
     I thought all this stuff was keeping us safe. Only this morning did I realize another factor, as important as childproofing, was protecting us as well: blind, dumb luck (or a benevolent God; take your pick. I don't want to get in a spat over theology).
     Anyway, I was on the sofa with the boys, making up scary stories—"Mr. Roboto," about two young boys building a robotic monster in the basement of their apartment building, and "The Skeleton Cave," about two young boys discovering a buried grave site. Which is hard work, since the boys demand newer, ever-scarier plot lines.
     Tiring of this, I suggested breakfast. My oldest called for "Pancakes hot from the griddle!" I sprang to make them. My wife was somewhere, upstairs, sleeping I assumed.
     Each boy cracked an egg. I made sure that they washed their hands afterward—vigilance against egg-borne salmonella! The pancakes sizzled. I shooed the boys away from the hot griddle. "Go sit down boys," I said. "The pancakes will be ready in a minute."
     As I tended the final moments of the pancakes' progress, I heard a whimper. I almost didn't investigate immediately, but I turned to gaze into the living room.
     Right by the kitchen door, as luck would have it, both good and bad, we had placed a big pile of unformed cardboard boxes. Our 2-year-old had stuck his head through the plastic band holding the boxes together and pulled them down on top of himself.
     When I saw him, he was crying and losing the struggle to keep the two dozen flat boxes from toppling over on him, tightening the band around his neck as they went.
     You never saw a fat man move so fast. With both hands I pulled the band away from his neck. It budged a little, just enough for him to breathe. I tried pushing the boxes back against the wall, but that seemed to tighten the band, too. I called for my wife. Then yelled. Then screamed, the most urgent, loud, throat-stripping sound I think I've ever produced.
     After an eternal 10 or 15 seconds, she came running, wrapped in a towel. She found a scissors and cut the plastic strap. The 2-year-old was left with a nasty 3-inch red welt around his neck. He forgot about it a minute later. His dad was hoarse for the rest of the day. His mom reacted so quickly, once she heard the shouts, that she somehow fractured her foot flying downstairs.
     The whole thing happened so fast that, when it was over and I returned to the grill, I flipped the pancakes and they weren't burned.
     Which is a roundabout way of saying: Watch out for big piles of cardboard boxes. Or plastic bands. Or anything a kid can get his head in.
     We're all resting comfortably now. And I've got my next scary story all ready: "The Fiendish Boxes."
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 23, 2000

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Texas Throwback: Does and Bees

     One rarely breaks away from a place cleanly. Our former homes exert a gravitational pull. So while safely landed in her native Chicago, our former Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey feels the tug of friends left behind.

     When a single person such as myself enjoyed meals al Fresco at fancy Italian joints in COVID safe Austin last summer, sometimes interesting characters would appear. While dining at Asti on 42nd and Duval, two dapper men in casually rumpled linen and felted Goorin Brothers hats sat with me on the sparsely populated patio. I wanted to go right over and join them. “What’s your story?” I’d say.
     Alas, I was far from decked out in my sporty wear during a long walkabout, and did not want to disturb their refined dining experience. Destiny had a different plan. I was wearing a button on my jean jacket and the astute waiter said “if you like buttons, you should talk to Jesse.” Jesse was the good-looking, mustached, longish reddish haired fancy man at the table across the way.“What the heck?” I thought, and I went over. Jesse and Stan were every bit as classy, reserved, and charming as I could have imagined. Jesse’s generous and loving spirt led him to present me with a one of a kind original, a button he made that stated “Ride The Ever Present Now.” I promptly affixed it to my fanny pack and promised to do so.
     This was the beginning of a sweet friendship. My favorite thing about Stan is his calm, slightly bemused, twinkly-eyed demeanor. Jesse is warm and sends inspirational texts JUST when you need them.
     One day, Jesse left a box of haute button-up shirts, padded hangers, and inspiring buttons on my porch. He asked me to donate the clothes and dole out the buttons to folks who needed a pick me up. I gave several of the buttons to my friend Kaitlin, who's a teacher. She was excited at the thought of including them in goodie bags for the kids she teaches.
     Every time someone complimented a button on my fanny pack, I'd remove it and hand it over to them. They were delighted, just as Jesse delighted me.
     Jesse loves bees. He created feeders for the yellow and black little buddies of ours, and regaled me with photos of them chomping down on sugar water. Jesse loves deer. He developed special friendships with the four leggeds who frequented his home in the hills of north Austin, giving them names like Cornbud and Cabbage Leaf, and I gleaned from his delight when he’d send me photos of his visitors.
     Since I have been back in Chicago, Jesse checks in regularly with cheerful messages that remind me that there is goodness in the world.
     “I’m listening to Klaus Schulze’s Moondawn on Spotify right now because the moon is shining in the skylight right over my room” and “I think Chicago is your placeYou settle in there for a while and find a place to fly your flag! I think you’re gonna have a great time there!” That’s a lot of rainbows. Thank you Jesse. It’s people like you who make the world go ‘round without much squeaking.
Stan and Jesse

Friday, June 18, 2021

Do we always have to care about others?


David Alfaro Siqueiros, "Our Present Image" (Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City)

     Last Father’s Day my wife bought me Air Pods Pro, a delightful pair of white ear buds. The sound quality is so pristine it brought tears to my eyes. The devices sleep in their own little sleek white lozenge that closes with a satisfying snap. Just the thing for the dad in your life and only $250.
     Walking the dog around my leafy suburban paradise, I wear them, listening to podcasts and audio books and music. They do block out the world, so if Kitty starts straining toward a passing dog, I’ll ask “Is your dog friendly?” while plucking the tiny marvel out of my left ear so I can hear the reply.
     Invariably, it is, and we humans chat superficially while our pets exchange sincere sniffs, tails wagging happily away. Then I slip the pod back in and float along like a bubble in the warm current of good feeling that is my life, for the most part.
     There was that thin young man who approached me Monday on the three-block stretch that passes for a downtown. He had on the standard summer uniform: shorts, a baggy pastel oxford shirt, untucked. Perhaps more sunburnt than is typical. He could have been 30, could have been 50. Hard to tell in the three seconds I appraised him. He asked me something, I removed my earbud and smiled encouragingly, anticipating his question: sometimes people step off the train and need directions. I love giving directions. It makes me feel so useful.
     “Can you buy me some food?” he said.
     “No,” I replied curtly, automatically, jamming my Air Pod Pro back into my ear and hurrying away, surprised and rattled. I twisted my head, trying to track him out of the corner of my eye, in case he followed me.
     Surprised because the refusal wasn’t me. I’m the sort of guy who would clap him on the back with a hearty “Of course!” and usher him into one of the fine eating establishments all around us. We were in front of Oliveri’s. Excellent lemon chicken. Across the street, Graeter’s, with its French pot process ice cream. That would perk up my new friend, and you’d now be reading the sad tale he’d unspool between bites of hot fudge sundae.
     But that didn’t happen.

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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Illegal abortion leads to circle of tragedy

     An abortion cost $50 in Chicago in 1941.
     Kinda cheap—$800 in today’s dollars—considering it was an illegal procedure, performed in secret, condemned by the church at a time when organized religion had even more of a stranglehold on American society than it does now, which is really saying something.
     Chicago women back then had abortions anyway, for the same reasons they do now, ranging from medical, financial and emotional necessity. It was a fairly routine procedure in 1941. Your doctor would jot down an address—190 N. State—and you’d hurry to the Gabler Clinic on the 6th floor.
     The Gabler clinic had been open since the early 1930s, mostly. It would be periodically raided, only to open again. Leading to the question of how this criminal procedure was performed an average of five times a day in the heart of the Loop for almost a decade.
     Therein lies the tale.
     One reason religious zealots have such success restricting abortion is that it is seen as affecting only women. So they marshal their zombie army of imaginary babies and send them off to do battle against actual living people—mostly young, poor women—and thus approach the New Jerusalem, in their own minds.
     While it is true that women are the primary beneficiaries of abortions, and suffer most when abortion is restricted, they are not the only victims of criminalizing a highly popular medical procedure. With the U.S. Supreme Court taking a case arising from Mississippi’s draconian abortion laws, and Texas’ “Heartbeat Law” criminalizing abortion after six weeks, now seems an apt moment to remember a case that rocked Chicago 80 years ago. A taste of what’s in store for us should the faith-addled fanatics Donald Trump placed on the high court overturn Roe v. Wade.
     They called it “The Million Dollar Abortion Ring,” for the nearly 20,000 abortions, at $50 a pop, performed at the Gabler Clinic. The clinic went from open secret to front page news after Detective Daniel Moriarity, a 15-year veteran of the state’s attorney police force, went to 4367 N. Lake Park, pushed past a maid, and fired five shots into what he thought was the sleeping form of Ada Martin, who ran the clinic.
     It wasn’t Martin. It was her daughter, Jennie, 24.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Eric Zorn takes the buyout

Eric Zorn at L. Woods.

     Impossible to say how many times Eric Zorn wrote the column I was too scared to write.
     Or didn't think to write. Or meant to write then forgot. Or got distracted by some trivial bullshit and wrote about that instead, while Eric concentrated on the Big Important Thing I was missing. Or kicked open the same door I had been gazing at, uncertainly.
     He did it again a week ago Sunday, in a lovely tribute to his parents, at first. He began with his mother knowing the words to the summer camp standard "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt" better than she knows him—thank you dementia!—slipping in this wonderfully sly description of of the tune as a "nonsense ditty about the four-named apparent victim of identity theft"—if the cleverness flew past you, remember the "that's my name too!" part.
     Identity theft.
     Head-bowed respect at that one.
     After lovingly and accurately addressing this heart-breaking malady that I can't even allude to in my own column because my mom would be mad at me, using facts and perspective, he pivots the column to his family, an update on his wife and kids. A sense of dread rushed in, so strong that it became hard for me to keep reading. Because I knew what was coming. It was like how an object gets heavier and heavier as it nears the speed of light. Or watching a horror movie you've seen before. This is the part where he goes down the dim hall. There's the door. You know what's in the closet. I literally stopped reading the column, fled over to my blog to write this now, to put it off what I knew was coming, what has to come. A columnist doesn't bring his family onstage for a round of applause unless this is goodbye, and since I don't want it to be, I'm sticking my head in the sand here for a while. A sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If you don't open the box, the cat is alive.
     Of course I knew him first through his writing. I remember covering some suburban trial, and then reading his piece and thinking, ruefully: "Eric Zorn was in the same room with me, and I didn't know it!"
     We eventually met, more than 25 years ago. My second book, "Complete & Utter Failure" had just been published by Doubleday, so this would be in the mid-1990s.  He liked the book and wanted to meet its author. We had lunch outdoors on Broadway, I believe. I remember thinking, "He's very tall," the sort of in-depth intellectual observation that has fueled my writing ever since.
     At first I was frequently combative. Insecure people are often combative. I nicknamed him "The Professor," for his deliberate consideration and tendency to draw in experts. I don't like to do that, because it involves both more work and someone talking who isn't me.  That did not keep me from starting my third book with a vignette about Rob Sherman I lifted, uncredited, from an Eric Zorn column. 
     Our lives sometimes seemed to parallel each other. When Kent was born, I had the Tempo section with the column about the birth of Eric's twins, folded up in my back pocket as we rushed to the hospital. Reading material.
     We kept in touch. Some years I got the sense that, for Eric, that was like pulling up a lawn chair next to a car wreck and gazing, finger ruminatively tapping on his lips. I remember sitting with him at Harry Caray's, sucking at my lunchtime Jack-on-the-rocks, nodding at a waiter. "Why yes, I will have another." That could not have been fun for him.
     We became better friends after Jeff Zaslow died. Maybe now I was a friend short and needed another. Maybe it was that 600 mile round trip we took together in a day, driving to his funeral and back. We stopped at Eric's parents' house in Ann Arbor and I met them, the people he wrote about. A very long day, but we talked and got through it.
     I could still keep up a tone of joshing competition. In 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I used Eric as a ventriloquist's dummy to mock terrorists. I'm not sure what he or anybody else felt; I found it deliciously funny. But we were more allies than competitors now. We'd meet at lunch at L. Woods, between our two homes, compare notes, bitch and brag. He and his wife Johanna and Edie and I even went out for burgers at Hackney's once, the kind of convivial normality that usually eludes me.
     Last summer, during the pandemic, the only house I went over for lunch was his. And he came over to mine. We sat there, talking, because really, how many newspaper columnists are there? How many white-guy-in-their-60s newspaper columnists, who can discuss the sudden frenzied undergraduate drama that has infected our profession? In April, Eric wrote a thoughtful column on slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo and was roasted alive on Twitter. "You might as well have shot him yourself," I said, as a crowd of growling ivory tower academics and wet-from-the-womb radicals skipped around him as if he were a maypole, jeering. Credit the ingenuity of humans: it takes a kind of genius to turn tolerance into just another form of cruelty, and racial sensitivity as a pretext to dismiss and trivialize opinions that don't precisely mirror your own.
     We can talk later about Zorn jutting out his chin and accepting responsibility for John Kass, by taking time off for his kids. "Then-City Hall reporter John Kass pinch hit in my column space while I was gone." OMFG. That's like me tossing off in the middle of a post about 1980, "That was the year I reached around Mark Chapman outside the Dakota and shot John Lennon, thrust the gun into his hands and disappeared into the crowd."
     I can forgive Eric Zorn leaving the door unlocked so John Kass could sneak into professional column writing, rendering Tribune punditry into a nauseating mess, like some drunk intruder crapping on the sofa. Because really, the sort of people who value a Kass ... well, I suppose their coin is good too, and a newspaper is a universe, or should be, or used to be, and if running astrology charts, "Love is..." and a gerbil-on-a-wheel of mouth-breathing right wing fuckery keeps readers happy, well, so be it. 
     I guess I can't put it off forever. And I suppose I could be mistaken. No, actually, I can't be. I've been writing a column for a while myself, and know how this shit works. Calling your family up one by one for an update, by name, like the end of "The Sound of Music," means something. Let's go see what it means.
     A cliffhanger. Eric gets to the point where he brings up "the crazy times here at work' and just stops.
      "No space left for that particular topic today!" he writes. "But stay tuned."
     My God, that's like the rocket in the last episode of "The Prisoner." I initially thought it was a very Steinberg move, to divide your farewell into two parts. But I flatter myself. What a sharp piece of writing.
     I started to tweet it. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck..." I began, then, feeling a rare pang of decorum, changed into, "Damn damn damn damn," about 10 times, then castigated Alden Capital. See, this is what they're tossing away. Stripping away the heart and liver of the Chicago Tribune, a civic institution since 1847, its frequent revanchist politics be damned. Hoping that the violated near-corpse blunders blindly forward for a few years while they make their money.
     I don't blame Eric. I wouldn't have done any different. The moment the buy-outs were offered, I was on the phone to him. I wasn't even certain why — the way you automatically reach out to someone whose house burned down. I couldn't give him my house but I felt like giving him something. Advice? My go-to advice is always "Keep the day job." That year snaps by so fast and then you're a person who used to work at a major newspaper.
     But the inevitability of the Alden Capital vivisection changed the calculus. Jumping through a window is bad, but if somebody is coming up the stairs to shoot you, then by all means, jump through the window and run away, bloody but alive. The choice was take the big trough of cash now, eight weeks' pay plus a week for every year, and leave, or stay and be fired in a month with far fewer muffins in your basket when you're turned loose into the dark forest.
     I wrote this, tweeted my distress at his leaving, and then sat back to watch the furor rise. And a shocking thing happened. Nothing. Crickets. Readers didn't even perceive that the column was his clearing his throat to say goodbye. "Half resignation letter, half suicide note," I explained to a colleague. My wife didn't see it either. Nobody seemed to, at least nobody I could see on social media. For the first time in my life I felt like calling up Robert Feder, the media critic, and rattling his cage. Are you on vacation? Didn't you read that? Well, make some noise, because apparently nothing is real until you say it occurred.
    That was enough to raise doubt. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was working out some deal with whatever human beings might be associated with Alden. Maybe someone there actually cares what kind of newspaper they publish.
     With that thought in mind, I couldn't inject myself into the dynamic and who knows, somehow fuck things up. Maybe negotiations are going on. So I put this on the shelf and waited, checking in on it every few days, like looking in on rising dough. That's why it's so long. Kept adding bits. 
     I waited for Wednesday's column which was ... about Bitcoin. Maybe the Alden folks won't let him go. Realize the Trib needs some intelligence and decency to balance the acid malice and juvenile irresponsibility of John Kass.  
     When everyone else figures it out, or he makes his formal announcement, then I'll pull the trigger. Which is why you're reading this today and not 10 days ago. It wouldn't matter anyway. The thing Eric and I do, comment intelligently in a well-written fashion, isn't what's driving the conversation anymore, not the way wild extremism does. Fanatics glitter in the spotlight while moderation creeps off to die alone in the shadows.
     How does it feel? Like a brontosaurus, under a darkening sky, up to its knees in a bog, slowly chewing a big mouthful of decaying vegetation, gazing uncomprehendingly at the heaving ribs of a stegosaurus that has toppled over on its side and is breathing hard, eyes staring, fixed. 
     Something like that.
     Ah, I see Eric has formally announced it. Robert Feder of course has the news. Time to pull the trigger. 
     I'm not sure how much of this protracted reaction is due to the obvious harbinger of my own professional mortality. Somewhere between a bit
 and a lot. Then again, Eric getting someplace first and doing it well usually meant that I had no need to go there at all. So maybe I've got a few years left before it's my turn, and the big thumb of doom squashes me down too. When Mary Mitchell retired, the paper held her a bash at a swank West Loop club, with a live band and an open bar and the mayor and special custom-made cookies and moist-eyed tributes. The place was mobbed. Clearly, I thought, Mary must be the greased hub upon which the city spins.
     "You're setting the bar pretty high for when I retire," I shouted over the crowd noise to the then-editor-in-chief.
     "You're never retiring," Chris Fusco said, and I peeled away, wondering if that was a complaint, a compliment, a plea, an augury, or some combination of the four.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Chicago Places #3: Hilliard Towers Apartments

Hilliard Tower Apartments, 54 W. Cermak, are a CHA senior residence.

     Am I the first guy to point out that Chicago had one architect who specialized in round buildings, Bertrand Goldberg? (Marina City, River City, Hilliard Towers Apartments, above). And another obsessed with triangles, Harry Weese (The Metropolitan Correctional Center, the Swissotel).
     What's that about?
     I'm sure dissertations have been based on flimsier observations, and while it would be possible to spin some BS about breaking the plane and the flat spatial prairie dynamic demanding non-rectangular shapes, my guess is that it's just coincidence. Chicago is a big place, and these two guys happened to be born and, after being boomeranged out into the world, Goldberg to Germany to work with Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus in Berlin, Weese to Boston and MIT, then return, as people do, to settle here. It doesn't have to mean anything.
     Oh, that's a cop-out, isn't it? I suppose I'm safe guessing that both were pushing against the brutalist rectangular boxes of Mies, the big cheese on the Chicago scene at the time they were coming up. (Goldberg, having been in Germany, knew German, unsurprisingly enough, and served as translator when Mies came to Chicago and made his pilgrimage to Taliesin to pay his respects to Frank Lloyd Wright, a task that had to require considerable tact, considering what a jerk Wrig
ht was). But I'd be skiing beyond my tips on that one.
     When I was sniffin
g around for something to say about either man, I bumped into a fact I didn't know about Weese. Here's how Ian Baldwin put it in "The Architecture of Harry Weese" in Places Journal a decade ago:

     The Vietnam Memorial as we know it today would never have been built without him. After Maya Lin’s entry board to the 1981 competition had been rejected, Weese, always uneasy with final decisions or consensus, dragged it out from the rear of the airplane hangar where it had been consigned. He swayed the rest of the jury and later championed Lin in the face of intense criticism.

     How cool is that? Of course, the Vietnam Memorial is sort of a pair of obtuse triangles, set at an angle to each other and incised into the earth. I hope that isn't the only reason Weese went to bat for it. But heck, stranger things have happened. And wouldn't it be ironic if such a moving monument that changed how war is commemorated was saved from oblivion because a judge was in love with scalene triangles?
     Speaking of monuments to national tragedies, do you think we'll ever commemorate the 600,000 and countin
g Americans felled by COVID? The Vietnam Memorial, on the Mall in Washington, D.C., remembers 57,000 Americans felled by political folly. Given the 10x difference in scale, we should do something even more dramatic—paint the Capitol black perhaps. But we probably won't.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Don’t be afraid; it’s just a street name change

     You’d think Chicago never renamed a street before.
     An ordinance changing “Lake Shore Drive” to “Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable Drive” was introduced in City Council in 2019. The idea flared up again in December, sparked heated debate, and finally seems to be inching toward fruition, despite opposition from the mayor and general foot-dragging reluctance of those who hate to see anything changed.
     Which includes myself. All things being equal, I’d stay with “Lake Shore Drive.” Name changes trip me up. I find myself cycling through the history of the names of Sox park—”I never want to go to Comiskey... er U.S. Cellular, I mean Guaranteed Rate Field.” Far easier to stick with one name, like “Wrigley. Field”
     Which used to “Weeghman Park.””
     The best argument for keeping “Lake Shore Drive” is that it’s a world famous street and Chicago doesn’t have many and should keep what few we’ve got. New York isn’t getting rid of Broadway.
     That said—and here’s my superpower—I also realize it isn’t all about me, or even about global branding. I can prefer it not be done and still be okay with someone doing it. Because there are good reasons for changing the name.
     And no, it isn’t about honoring DuSable.
     “The name of the street isn’t about people they’re named for,” said Bill Savage, a Northwestern professor whose next book, “The City Logical” is about Chicago streets. “It’s about making people who live here now remember them.”
     What the change would do is color the image of the city, both for residents and outsiders, bringing it more in line with the people who actually live here, turning from whatever emotions might be plucked by the words “Lake Shore Drive”—that song, the Beavis and Butt-head chuckle at its abbreviation. (“Heh heh heh, LSD, it’s the name!”)—to the range of feeling encapsulated by “DuSable Drive.” History has decided DuSable was a handsome, bearded man, based on the bust that I paused to admire Saturday night on a crowded, diverse Michigan Avenue. 
     Which used to be Pine Street. What bugs me about the debate, more than ooo-scary change, is the notion that this is all somehow new.
     “It would be the second street renamed in the city of Chicago,” The Defender suggested last December. “Journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells Drive was the city’s first street renamed.”
     I hate to snicker at The Defender, now a shell of a husk of an echo of its former greatness. But that’s just silly. Street names change continually throughout the history of the city. The streets were a hodgepodge, and had to be ironed out, otherwise there was utter confusion—a Michigan Street, Michigan Avenue and Michigan Boulevard. North Lincoln Avenue and North Lincoln Street intersected at Grace.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Chicago Places #2: Chess Records

     You discover a whole new city on foot.
     I mean, I knew Chess Records was at 2120 S. Michigan, because the Rolling Stones cut a little organ-and-harmonica instrumental there in 1964 called "2120 South Michigan."
     Or at least, I knew Chess had been there. Maybe it is incurious of me—okay, it definitely is incurious of me—but the question of whether the classic recording studio is still there never crossed my mind. Or if I knew, I forgot.
    Shameful. The place where Muddy Waters recorded "Hoochie Coochie Man" and Chuck Berry sang "Maybellene" and "Johnny B. Goode" and the Rolling Stones recorded "Satisfaction" (a year after recording Muddy Waters' not-at-all-similar "I Can't Be Satisfied.")
      Then again, had I known, it would have watered down the happy surprise of walking with my younger son down Cermak, exploring his new neighborhood, turning the corner onto Michigan, and seeing, first this little gated music venue, "Willie Dixon's Blues Garden," just south, a kind of foreshadowing, and then the famous building itself, which Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation owns. 
     All these years in Chicago, and I never parked the car and walked around Motor Row. That's one of the many glories of having children. For the first two decades, you show the world to them. And then, if you're lucky, they show the world to you.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Norwood Park Notes: Meeting with the arch goof

     I slid by Ravenswood Friday afternoon to chat with a 106-year-old woman for a future column.  Afterward seemed an ideal opportunity to detour by Norwood Park on my way home and finally meet our transplanted Austin bureau chief, Caren Jeskey, whose perspective has been embroidering and uplifting Saturdays for well over a year. I was about 20 minutes late. Traffic. Our meeting transpired exactly as she describes below. Yes, I did pause when I  read the opening. Mocking yourself is one thing; being mocked by another something else entirely. Then I decided, heck, it's a little late for personal dignity and, besides, it is good for readers to have confirmation from an outside, unbiased source that my occasional description of myself as an awkward goof is not comic exaggeration, but dry, dispassionate reportage, mere descriptive journalism offering up unvarnished reality as it actually is.
    A gray Honda minivan parallel parked on tree lined North Avondale Avenue in Norwood Park, the rear tire resting squarely on the curb near the grass. The driver got out, saw what he had done, got back in and tried again. He carefully maneuvered the van right back onto the grass. I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking “now that’s a suburban driver.” He got out and I half-jokingly called out “do you want me to park it?” but third time’s a charm, and without my help he managed to park the van squarely in the street.
     Neil Steinberg got out and we met, face-to-face, for the first time. We sat at a sturdy wooden picnic bench outside of add chapter Design & Art Cafe (, the occasional Metra train clanging into the station, squeaking to a halt, and whirring off again.
   I’d ordered a plate of cookies for us— after all, Neil’s birthday was earlier this week. One of the owners of add chapter, Nadia Muradi, explained that the fig filled cookies had no added sugar. The walnut filled cookies were slightly sweetened with simple syrup to “bring out the flavor of the walnuts.” They were made with Nadia’s mother’s tried and true homeland recipe “with her own twist.”
     Neil tried the hummus, which was made from scratch with fresh garbanzo beans and served with pita loaded with an herbal blend of thyme, oregano and mint, salt and olive oil. I went with spicy vegan cabbage soup served with crunchy rolls of thin pita that was seasoned and lightly fried.
     Before Neil arrived I had an oat milk latte flavored with cardamom, rose petals, and honey. I chatted with Nadia who shared some of her life philosophies with me. Nadia opened this space with the goal of providing a hub where all people feel comfortable. A place for “cultural exposure,” bringing those of varying backgrounds together. She believes in having open dialogue with others, even those who don’t see eye to eye with us. “I don’t have to attach meaning to every word others say,” she explained. She sees the best route as standing up for beliefs at times, but letting go and letting others be without sharing a differing opinion at other times. “We can have civilized conversation.” I like this. The path of harmony.
     Anyone else tired of fighting?
     To me, the phrase “add chapter” conjures up the sense that we can introduce something new to our lives at any time. When Neil sat down he shared that he sees this phrase as the possibility of adding a final chapter to our lives as we age, after we’ve accomplished what we set out to do in this lifetime. Nadia and her partner Samer “Sam” Khwaiss are also branding specialists. ( Nadia supports the idea of adding a new chapter to one’s current brand; reshaping and redefining projects and ideas as they grow.
     With the interesting and intricately naturally flavored beverages she offers— some sweetened with honey, others with maple syrup, and none too sweet— along with what feel like a spirit of creation, Nadia’s presence is calming and inspiring. I noticed a guitar in the window and asked her if they have live music. They were closed for most of last year and just reopened in May, but yes— they do plan to have indoor/outdoor performances and open mics in the near future. (I volunteered you Snezana Zabic:
     I felt completely at ease with Neil and felt as though we’d already met. I enjoyed his Chicago accent— adopted, yes I know— and was delighted to sit across from a writer I’ve enjoyed for many years. Neil’s book Out of the Wreck I Rise provided me with companionship in the fall of 2016 when I was living alone in the woods. Clearly, this was a day where I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Working with Neil has also made me feel even more that I belong here in this toddlin’ town.
     After a lovely snack, Neil and I walked over to add chapter’s art gallery around the corner. Samer’s work stopped me in my tracks. Canvasses full of stunning, melancholy faces deep in thought. Samer and Nadia are of Syrian descent. The complex history of that nation speaks clearly in the art. The faces of twin teenaged girls holding hands that Sam captured in one of the pieces took a hold of my heart, and I can still feel the intensity of what those girls must have gone through, and also their power and beauty. They are planning an opening later this summer.
     Let’s all meet at add chapter soon.