Saturday, July 31, 2021

Chicago Notes: Great Lake

     Former Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey casts her eye upon our inland sea:

     Lake is too small a word for the great body of water east of Chicago. That’s why I’ve started telling friends “I’m down at the ocean” during my regular sojourns to its shore. One friend responds in kind. She recently texted me “heading down to the ocean now,” putting a big smile on my face. It just makes life seem more exciting.
     The other night while at the oceanfront near Foster, a man in a kayak floated a few hundred feet off the beach after the lifeguards left. He was there for an hour or so, and I thought “what a kind soul,” thinking he was acting as the evening lifeguard once the city guards had cleared out for the evening. His presence was reassuring.
     Meanwhile my family and I struck up a conversation with a nice lady and her 7 year old daughter Sara. Sara and my 8 year old nephew Anthony struck up quite the beach friendship and before too long had dug a hole nearly as deep as they were tall. They were very proud and Anthony kept calling out “Peaches!”—my favorite nickname—“Come over here! Look!” with an ear-to-ear grin.
     A perfect summer evening.
     Sara’s mother told us that the man on the kayak is her husband. He was not actually lifeguarding at all— he just likes to float around out there to decompress. Still cool, and I am sure he’d have sprung into action if any of the night swimmers got into trouble. When he came back to shore we swapped stories about “Lake” Michigan.
     As you probably know, the Great Lakes (ok, fine. I guess I’ll have to call them what they are and not what they seem) comprise the largest fresh water body in the world. You also may know that Michigan has tidal waves called seiches ( and is regaled with meteotsunamis on a regular basis (
     Sara’s father shared stories of people getting caught in whirlpools of water that form in areas of the lake disrupted with concrete docks. He told us that Foster beach is quite safe because the open space creates a climate of calm.
     Nearly 20 years ago I was out on the water with friends and an experienced sailor who docks his boat at Montrose Harbor. We had a lovely day and headed back to shore. Several people got off of the boat, including a friend and her infant son. El Capitán decided we’d head back out for round two, though the weather appeared foreboding. In fact, other sailors who had also headed back cautioned us against going back out. The captain would have none of it for we were hardy sailors.
     With trepidation I joined the group of fifteen or so—most of us landlubbers and the rest the small crew who’d keep us safe. Sure enough, what seemed to be out of the blue, a storm blew in. I have never been on a body of water so choppy. The crew flew into action while my friends and I sat in a circle above deck, holding hands and crouching together. We did not have life jackets on. There was no time. I heard the faithful praying fervently.
     At one point our 39.1 foot craft could not stand up to the waves. The boat was on its side, perpendicular to the water, and while we clutched each other we watched the crew work furiously to right the ship. They succeeded with much effort and what felt to be an eternity. We were able to make it back to land. Needless to say this was one of the most terrifying things I’ve lived through, and since then I have mostly shied away from invitations to sail on private boats in Chicago.
     Lake Michigan is no joke. Nothing to trifle with.
     I was once watching a surfing documentary with my brother John who lives in California and has always been a huge (real) ocean lover. I was surprised and delighted to see brat-eating, beer-drinking South Siders catching huge waves somewhere near the Illinois Indiana border. I can’t quite think of the name of the movie, but will share if and when I do. Dees, dems and dosers with bellies drinking Hamm’s and catching waves is too good to miss. (As a half South-Sider I am allowed to say these things).
      I can’t talk about the lake without talking about my maternal grandparents, Olive and Carl. They met at Oak Street Beach almost 100 years ago. Olive was adorable and young, and I can picture her in my mind’s eye, standing on a concrete post in her swimming costume. Carl must have taken that photo. Carl used to fish off of Navy Pier before it became a fortress, and we’d share fried fish at the little shack at the end of the pier.
     It’s so very good to be home.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Columbus fans could learn from Cleveland

   Someone named Natalie at something called “SeatGeek” sent me an email offering White Sox tickets for Friday’s game against the Cleveland Indians. I blinked at it.
     “Didn’t they change their name to the ‘Guardians?’” I wondered. Yes they did, but only after this season. Ah.
     Sure, I could get all sentimental about a century of baseball tradition being scrapped. Weep how I loved Chief Wahoo as a child and, to be honest, still do. How my mother was an Indians fan, my grandfather before her.
     But you know what? Truth is, I’m an adult now, and understand the world is not all about me. I have my own sense of self-worth, one not dependent on the icons of my youth being carried into perpetuity on the shoulders of the public, like plaster saints borne aloft in some dusty village procession. Times change. Certain stereotypes fly in 2021 while others do not. I can’t explain why the Fighting Irish Leprechaun is OK while Chief Wahoo isn’t.
     Though I can try: It has something to do with the Irish coming here and doing pretty well, eventually, while the Native Americans already were here and didn’t do well at all, not once the white newcomers were done with them. I bet if no Irish Catholics actually attended the University of Notre Dame, its pugnacious mascot would be seen in a very different light.
     Still, when I heard Cleveland is changing the name to “Guardians,” I winced. Leave it to Cleveland to pick a dud. I had been pulling for “Spiders.” It’s such a cool name, with roots — Cleveland was the Spiders before it was the Indians. And I’d been to the University of Richmond, and was so impressed with its way-cool Spiders mascot I almost bought a Spiders t-shirt.

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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Neil Steinberg's Day off


St. Regis Tower viewed from Maggie Daley Park's Cancer Survivors' Garden

     Left to my own devices, I'd rather be working. And between the column and the book and the blog, God knows there's plenty of work to do. So when my wife suggested we chuck our obligations Wednesday and go downtown for a "vacation day," to ensure we wouldn't make noise and bother our oldest while he's downstairs taking the New York State Bar Exam, I went along, batting away qualms.
     Such as the moment, early in the morning, when I was at my desk, pulling reference art for the artist illustrating my book to base drawings upon. "Why am I going anywhere when I need to get this done?" I thought, grimly. I shook that off.
     We boarded the 7:56 Metra downtown. "Smiling faces under those masks!" the conductor urged. "Let's have those masks on please." People complied. Arriving downtown, we walked across the Loop. Normally we'd have gone to the Art Institute—it's been a year and a half since we've been inside. But it's closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, due to COVID crisis scheduling, so we picked up tickets for the 10 a.m. Chicago Architecture Center river tour on the Emerald Lady. I'll admit that my enjoyment of the tour was tempered by already knowing just about everything the docent said, and more. I had to retrain myself to keep from shouting out what I thought were salient details she sidestepped. But Edie loved it, and it was fun to spend 90 minutes on the river on a gorgeous warm summer day, first up the north branch to the Freedom Center, then down to River City, and back along the main branch, out to the lock. She didn't make a single factual error, and that might have riled me too, because I was primed and waiting for the joy of correcting others. 

     After, we headed to Ming Hin for a dim sum lunch, then crossed Randolph and wandered Millennium Park. Neither of us had actually been in Maggie Daley Park—we always pull up at the Bean—and it was fun to explore the place, with its clunky climbing walls and Cancer Survivors' Garden, which has a great view of Jeanne Gang's St. Regis, née Vista, Tower. There are a series of metal plaques offering advice to those facing cancer, including the dubious proposition that you can beat it if you really set your mind to the task, and that a good doctor will be a man. But I still managed to enjoy the place, despite, or perhaps because, of that.
     We swung over to the Chicago Yacht Club and walked down the lakefront, passing Segway tours and women in hijabs learning to kayak. We ended up relaxing in the lobby of the newly open Palmer House, enjoying a cold beverage and sharing a brownie, which the Palmer House claims to have invented and may very well have. There definitely were more people downtown, and it's good to be among them and see the city opening up, if only briefly before the next crisis arrives.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

How do blind people pick up after their dogs?

     Four times a day, Leslie takes her black Lab for a walk outside her home in the northwest suburbs. “Get busy,” she commands.
     If you’re wondering why you’re reading a third column in a week about picking up after dogs, well, stick with me, and you’ll see there is no choice here. Some threads simply must be pulled.
     If you recall, Monday’s column quotes the Cook County animal law, Sec. 10.8 (r): “No person shall fail to remove feces deposited by the person’s cat or dog, except service animals...”
     This drew an email from former Sun-Times book editor, Henry Kisor.
     “Your column today, with all the poop about designer poo bags ... was interesting — and shocking,” he wrote. “Shocking in your citation of the Cook County law about cleaning up after your dog. Why should handlers of service dogs be exempt from that? I use a service dog, and like all other service dog handlers I have ever known, I clean up after my dog.”
     I replied that perhaps the clause is meant not for people who are deaf, like Henry, but for the blind. How could a blind person pick up after a dog?
     “The way I pick up after my dog, first of all, feel for her movement,” said Leslie, who asked me not to use her last name. “I can tell she’s moving around in circles, or sniffing, through the leash.”
     She also didn’t want me to use her dog’s name, lest someone read the article, see her on the street, and shout “Rover!” or whatever, and come over and pet the dog. You’re not supposed to do that. Service dogs are working.
     “You don’t want to give someone a chance to distract the dog, for safety reasons,” she said.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Flashback 1987: " Lawyer test `worst,' bar none - It's agony--but you can't practice without passing it"

    The bar exam begins Tuesday. Both my sons are taking the two-day, 12 hour test remotely, because of COVID. My older son will take the New York state bar exam, my younger, the Illinois. This is the second generation of my being in proximity to the test: 34 years ago, I nervously hovered in the background while my wife-to-be took the bar. The memory is clear: we stayed at a hotel downtown, the Westin, as those taking the bar did, to be near to the examination site, and eliminate any risk of traffic tie-ups. The night before we wandered Rush Street, looking for a restaurant that appealed to her. At 1 a.m., after we had gone to sleep, workers started ripping up Michigan Avenue under our window. That was a surprise. We coped. At lunchtime, I hurried over to the hotel from work and ordered room service—cling peaches, cottage cheese and a baked potato, comfort food—so it would ready when she got there, and awaited her arrival. That moment of expectation is what lingers: the covered plate on a little cart, the silent room, gazing out the window at the street, waiting. After she returned to the exam, I went down to the front desk and demanded they change our room to one not facing the street. I also wrote this story. 
     On Tuesday, 2,236 people will sit down and face perhaps the most difficult and important test of their lives: the Illinois bar exam.
     For weeks, in some cases months, these would-be lawyers have hibernated with their lawbooks, shunning friends and family. They have enrolled in expensive cram courses, gnawed their fingernails, downed gallons of antacid and, above all, studied, studied, studied.
     While much controversy surrounds the two-day, 12-hour, 216-question exam, most of it centering on whether the time-consuming exam should be given at all, there are two things that cannot be disputed: It is a grueling, difficult, maddening test, and you cannot practice law without passing it.
     "I still have nightmares, awful memories. I don't even like to think about it," said Anne Burke, a Southwest Side attorney and wife of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).
     "It's absolutely one of the worst experiences you can go through," said William H. Wise, an attorney and part-time law instructor at DePaul University. "If it was up to me, they would get rid of all the bar exams. The questions they ask are so obscure and minuscule, things that in my 22 years of practice have never come up."
     How obscure? Past bar exams have asked questions about property law from 1670.
     "That's what's so crazy about the bar exam," said Nisha Kumar, who is taking the bar on Tuesday, hoping to join the ranks of the approximately 40,000 lawyers practicing in Illinois. "They're testing us on law that no state has been following for decades, yet we have to know that to practice law in Illinois."
     About 90 percent of the students taking the bar pay $795 for an intensive review course called BAR-BRI, designed to reacquaint them in seven weeks with the information it took three years of law school to learn.
     "Think of how you would like to take a final examination on something you studied in school three years ago," said Richard J. Conviser, an Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who began BAR-BRI 20 years ago. "Nobody enjoys the experience - it's a lot of hard work under pressure."
     The exam is given in February and July. It consists of two parts. The first, an essay section, asks 16 questions relating to Illinois law. The second, known as the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), is the same in 49 of the 50 states and asks 200 multiple-choice questions relating to nationally applicable law.
     Just the act of responding to so many questions in so short a period of time makes taking the bar almost an act of physical endurance.
     "By the second afternoon, I was so emotionally and physically exhausted it was an effort just to finish it," said Jo Ellen Bursinger, who took the exam in February. "Afterward, we went out to dinner, and I was so exhausted that I couldn't even eat or drink."
     Despite elaborate preparation, some people are not able even to finish the test, never mind pass it.

   "In the morning of the first day the room was filled," said Burke, who took the exam in 1983. "After the lunch break on the first day, some people were missing and never came back. The same thing happened every day. They just couldn't handle it."
     Frank Morrissey, one of the five state bar examiners who write and oversee the test, said they often try to keep people from leaving.
     "Sometimes we can talk them into going back in," he said. "I remember one young man—his wife had served him with divorce papers the morning of the exam. He walked out about 10:15 a.m., saying, `I just can't think.' I said, `What are you going to do for the next two days, just sit in your apartment? You've got this time set aside, why don't you reconsider and go back in?' The guy went back in and passed the bar exam."
     To take the bar, a person needs to have done four things: graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (there are nine in Illinois), passed a brief morals test, paid a $150 fee (the entire bar exam procedure is funded solely by entry fees) and submitted five character references and three notarized affidavits attesting to his moral character.
     There is a long wait to get test results back—as much as two months. The examiners are reluctant to discuss exactly how the passing cutoff point is determined, but in general 70 percent correct will earn a passing mark. Test scores are not released; the new lawyers simply are informed that they have passed, the others that they failed and must try again.
     Although Illinois has one of the highest passage rates in the country, about 15 percent of the applicants who take the test fail. Those who fail can request an audience with an examiner, who will discuss their essay answers.
     Everyone who has endured the bar exam has a tale to tell: the student who had a nervous breakdown and had to be taken to Northwestern Memorial Hospital's emergency room for observation. The armless student who, two years ago, went in and took the exam with her feet, even though she could have requested a scribe.
     Perhaps the greatest bar exam story of all is the famed Marsha Spak episode, which took place the second day of the exam in February, 1979.
     It was noon. Having finished the morning session, Spak, a January graduate of Chicago-Kent, headed toward the Ritz-Carlton, where she had taken a room to rest during the two-hour break. Her husband, Michael Spak, saw her crossing the street from the hotel window.
     "I had lunch ready for her," he said. "An $18 sandwich, sent up by room service. But I kept waiting and waiting."
     Spak was kept waiting because his wife was trapped in the elevator, between the 12th and 13th floors, in complete darkness.
     "I was all alone," she said. "My first thought was: I'm going to miss the exam. I was not at all concerned about falling or being killed, only that I was going to have to take the exam all over again."
     The hotel manager refused to pry open the doors, fearing damage to the expensive wood finish. Half an hour passed. An hour passed.
     After almost 1 1/2 hours, the elevator finally was unjammed, and with minutes to spare, Marsha Spak—too terrified to get back in the elevator—raced down 13 flights of stairs and back to the exam room. She arrived just as the test booklets were being handed out.
     She passed.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 26, 1987

Monday, July 26, 2021

Poop fairies won’t help, but this bag might

     Myble is a rescue and a sweetie, according to her owner, Barbara Radner. But like all dogs, the Chihuahua mix has her needs. When nature calls, the retired DePaul administrator escorts Myble from their home on the 33rd floor of a lakefront condo and down to the street to do her business.
     Heading out, Radner snags a WoofPack Dog Walking Accessory Bag. I learned of the product’s existence after my July 15 column about the non-reality of poop monitoring drones. Cook County is not searching for pet waste from the sky, but an Ohio company is selling a tote bag to put it in.
     “I just got tired of stuffing things into my pockets,” said Lisa Bast, who started her company, Waggin’ Trails, in 2017. “At times I was walking and didn’t have enough bags. Carrying bagged waste, cellphone, keys, treats. I wanted something all-in-one.”
     The bag is sold online and at dog shows.
     "When I saw it, I said, ‘Huh, that would solve several problems,’” said Radner, 76. “I’m going to get it.”
     I’ve been walking a dog for 11 years, and the plastic sheath from newspapers makes a perfect collection bag (try that, Apple News) which, knotted, I hold in one hand and do not think about until reaching the nearest trash receptacle.
     Why buy a $30 purse to put poo bags into?
     “It’s just designed perfectly,” Radner said. “There’s a little pocket for my cellphone and other stuff. A well-protected pocket for the poo bag, so your phone doesn’t smell like poop.”
     Bast had help perfecting the bag from the company manufacturing them.
     “It is very, very, very expensive to manufacture in the United States,” she said. “But I wanted it made here. I had it manufactured in Amish country, but the quality wasn’t there.”

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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Flying jewels

     Hummingbirds are special. Most birds fly, which is incredible enough. Hummingbirds, alone among birds, hover, their wings beating so fast—50 times a second—there is no need for forward motion to keep them airborne. The wonders of this bird are so many they defy brief listing, though chief among them has to be that unique figure-8 method of flapping that allows hummingbirds to stay aloft by alternating between beating the bottom then the top of their wings against the air. Talk about efficiency.
     To that, add the marvel of smallness, the first thing that Europeans noticed when they encountered this species of bird only found in the Western hemisphere.
      "There is a curious bird to see to, called a humming bird, no bigger than a great Beetle," Thomas Morton wrote 1637 in New England Canaan, a furious critique of Puritanism that became the first book banned in the New World.
     "Much less than a Wren, not much bigger than an humble Bee," Richard Ligon wrote in A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados in 1657.
    More recently, Kenn Kaufman perfectly dubs them "flying jewels" in Birds of North America. Harriette Wilbur, in her priceless 1920 Bird Gossip refers to the hummingbird she spends hours and hours watching as a "tiny elf," its "thimble-nest" concealing translucent, pea-sized eggs. 
      Hummingbirds weigh about 3 grams—a little more than a penny—and at that size, certain design sacrifices are required. Their feet, for instance. The birds cannot walk, or even hop, but must shuffle awkwardly if need be. If you've wondered how they suck nectar through those long thin beaks (you haven't, but it's nice to pretend) the truth is, they don't. They wet their beaks in nectar then lick it off with their long clear tongues, a process that they must do well, because they can consume half their body weight in a day.
   D.H. Lawrence finds wonder anew by inverting the size situation in his delightful poem about hummingbirds, imagining them as the first creatures at the dawn of time:
     Before anything had a soul,
     While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate
     This little bit chipped off in brilliance
     And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
     He imagined a time of giant hummingbirds.
     Probably he was big
     As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
     Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
     We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
     Luckily for us.
     Expert that I am, I can tell at a glance that the bird in this series of photos, shot in Marcellus, Michigan by reader Nikki Dobrowolski, is a Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
     I'm joking. They all are, mostly. The Ruby-throated is the only hummingbird that breeds in the Eastern half of the United States. Though occasional stray Rufous hummingbird and other varieties do stray over here from the West. 
     To get a sense of the impoverishment this limitation represents, there are 150 species of hummingbird in Ecuador alone and 320 or so in the Americas. 
     Being American, they of course are warlike, despite their size. Like our country, they have an excuse for their aggression, though theirs is a better one: needing to feed so often and fly so far—some hummingbirds spend half their lives migrating, and can cover 20 miles a day—they can't indulge other birds that might be interested in the flowers they need to power up on. So hummingbirds are famous for fiercely driving off birds three times their size to literally eat their lunches.  
     Despite all this, hummingbirds, like people, can become bolloxed by our artificial world, and sometimes need a helping hand, as Nikki explained when she sent me these photos. "It’s not often you get to touch a hummingbird," she writes. "One flew into my garage today and kept trying to get out through the window. I put my hand out to guide it toward the door, and it did buzz my hand for a moment. I was able to get these shots on my iPhone, not bad pics of a live bird. Hope you enjoy them."
     I would say we all have. Thank you Nikki.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Notes From The Plaza: Moods & Foods

Rent Party

     And here I thought Austin was a cool town. Maybe it's really Dullsville, and only seemed interesting because Caren Jeskey was there, describing it. Here is her latest Saturday report, now from Chicago, thank God, striking a vibe that I wouldn't find had I hung around the neighborhood for a week. 

     It’s time to party again— even though COVID is ramping up the hunt. Yesterday, the unscrupulous virus prompted an alert on my phone (that still thinks I live in Austin): “COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Austin Public Health is recommending both vaccinated/unvaccinated people wear masks indoors & outdoors when you can’t distance. Getting vaccinated is the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
     Listening to music outdoors while distanced is one way to find joy this beautiful summer in Chicago. A friend’s band Rent Party played at Woodard Plaza this past Thursday evening as a part of of a free weekly music fest in Logan Square—— that runs through August.
     The band consists of three brilliant writers and musicians. Snežana Žabić played various instruments including an amped-up cigar box guitar accompanied by her poetic, thought provoking lyrics. Matt Sobczyk’s laid back stance, smooth voice and sultry bass is a pleasing balance to Ms. Žabić’s strong, bright voice and powerful (yet small) stature. Holly Rose Shapiro’s drum work wowed me. Her fair skin, dark curls, red lips and patterned Chuck Taylor’s cooly said “rockstar,” as her expression remained steady and focused. She clacked her drumsticks together to alert the band when to start each song, and hit the rhythms and beats with precision. At one point I tried to figure out what the heck she was doing, her handwork so intricate and quick. She nailed every stroke of the sticks and step of the pedals, and it was impossible not to dance.
     You can catch Rent Party at their next show on August 15th from 1-2pm at North Park Community Market at 5527 N Kimball. It’s outdoors, free and family friendly ( I heard, on good authority, that the tamales are tasty too.
     For the first half of the show, the audience sat on concrete risers, attention fixed towards the stage, starting to emerge from their shells. A group of four young boys, some with ice cream cones in their hands, sat close to the stage. They were into it. One of the boys, about ten or so with a head full of thick black hair, patterned shorts and a bright blue tee shirt couldn’t help himself. The rhythm got into him, and he started clapping and knee slapping along with Holly.
     Enrique Morales, one of the organizers of this fine event that breathes life into the intersection of Diversey, Kimball & Milwaukee, placed a bucket of sidewalk chalk in front of the kiddos. They immediately sprang into action and turned the Plaza into their palette. They jumped and ran and danced as they swiped colorful thick wands of chalk all over the white concrete. When they were finished I got a closer look to see what they wrote. “Jesus Loves You And We Love You,” and “Take Care,” along with plenty of hearts.
     A few men who either live on the streets or perhaps in the encampment of tents set up just across Kimball also joined us. One came swaying over, obviously intoxicated, and sat down. I felt nauseous just looking at him. He could barely hold his head up yet still bobbed it along to the music and called out “more, more!” when the band paused to share a story. He was wearing $10 shower shoes from Walgreens with the Cubs logo on them, and I noticed that one of his toenails was badly infected. I wondered what all he has been through?
     A slender black man came by, danced a bit with some nimble footwork, then picked up a good sized cardboard box I hadn’t noticed (probably his bed for the night). He then stepped right in front of traffic to cross the street, making it to the other side—unscathed, thank goodness. He placed the box on a bus stop bench for later, and danced away. That’s when I noticed the tents and men sitting on lawn chairs in the little park across the street.
     Midway through the show, a young couple bounced over with big smiles. The bearded man leaned back, turning the concrete risers into a comfy couch, extended his arm and offered his chest as a pillow for his special lady. They gazed lovingly at each other and then settled in to rock out to the music. When the show was over they approached Snežana and asked about the stringed cigar box. Snežana offered it to the young lady to test out. We chatted a bit and I learned that she is a talented artist and musician named Anna Marie. You can see her lovely work here: The bearded man is her husband, Zander.
     I helped the band load up and we went to Dante’s on Armitage for a slice. A lovely time was had by all.

Friday, July 23, 2021

First victim of 1919 race riots will get grave marker

     On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July, Eugene Williams and four friends hopped a produce truck to the lakefront. There they recovered a large raft they’d hidden and went out on Lake Michigan. The year was 1919, and the day was July 27, but it might as well have been this year and yesterday when it comes to explaining why Chicago is the city it is, and faces the problems it does.
     “A pivotal moment in the city’s history, and significant in the nation’s history,” said Adam Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago.
     The raft drifted away from the “race’s answer to Atlantic City,” the Black beach at 25th Street and toward the beach at 29th Street, which white Chicagoans had staked out as their own private property.
     “He happened to float across a perceived line,” said Green.
     A white immigrant, George Stauber, stood on the breakwater and began throwing rocks at the boys. One hit Williams in the forehead, and he slid off the raft and drowned. His friends rushed to a lifeguard, and then the police. A white officer refused to arrest Stauber, and stopped a Black officer from doing so. Seven days of riots followed Williams’ death. People were shot, stabbed, stoned, pulled from streetcars and beaten to death, houses burned, blocks reduced to ruin. Thirty-eight Chicagoans died in the unrest.
     “People lost a sense of existing within a shared civil community,” said Green, referring to 1919, though it sums up too many situations today. “They engaged in this primal battle to enforce upon African Americans a subordinate place. We think of it in such macro terms, we lose track of the individual people. The 38 who lost their lives.”
     Williams was buried in an unmarked grave. A century passed.
     Two years ago, on the centennial of the riots, Chicago magazine published a story by Robert Loerzel, “Searching for Eugene Williams,” collecting what little is known of Williams’ brief life.
     “Just a regular kid like us,” a friend recounted to an academic, half a century later. “A pretty smart boy.”

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Thursday, July 22, 2021

Flashback 2003: Travel to Detroit? Sure, and I'll bring a colleague

      Twitter gets a bad rap. But I find it an easy way to interact with people I might never meet otherwise. It's been particularly valuable during COVID, when we all hunkered down and kept out of the public whirl. On Wednesday, Shermann 'Dilla' Thomas, a Chicago historian who runs walking tours of the city,  said he'd like to meet me, and Mary Mitchell. I began to reply that I'd be happy to meet him—I'm happy to meet pretty much anybody—but Mary might be harder to pin down. But then I remembered this incident, and felt that I might be selling her short. It's also a reminder of the sort of thing we miss not being in an office.

     "Security sent this up,'' said the grinning, lanky reporter, dropping a manila envelope onto my cluttered desk. "We opened it very carefully.''
     I took the envelope and gingerly peeked inside, then dumped out the contents: Three music CDs. Two notes scrawled on personal checks. A parking lot ticket from Midway Airport. And the key to a pickup truck.
     "I made some phone calls,'' the reporter continued. "She's a teacher at an inner-city high school in Detroit. She drove here last night and left her truck in the parking lot at Midway. Then she went back."
     "Why?" I said.
     "She wants," he answered, "somebody from the newspaper to drive her truck back to Detroit." 
     "Why?" I asked again. He didn't really know.
     I thanked him and he left. I sat at my desk, turning the key over in my hands and gazing at it. Then I phoned the teacher. She said she wanted someone from the outside world to come and talk to her students.
     "I'll do anything to get the attention I think I need to at the time to get my point across," she said. 
     And that point is? I asked.
     "I love the kids in my classroom and I would do anything for them," she said. "I'm white and they're black. This is about teaching them self-love, self-respect, self-esteem."
     I said I wasn't quite following her logic.
     "I'd love for you to drive it back, just so you can tell the kids what a strange thing [I] did for them," she said. "They'd love it."
     It's a five-hour drive to Detroit, I said.
     "You could talk about the value of math in your work," she said. "If you've got an African-American reporter you could bring along, that would be beautiful, them seeing a white and a black working together."
     Maybe it was the real-world pathos of that last sentiment. Maybe I was seduced by the chance to push math. But for some reason the wall that reporters count on to keep out people who seem not quite right lowered a little. I told her I would call her back and stepped next door, to Mary Mitchell's office (Mary, for those of you reading online in Sweden, is the paper's outspoken voice of in-your-face black womanhood).
     "Mary," I said, "would you go to Detroit with me so that this teacher's class can see a black and a white working together?" 
     She didn't blink. 
     "Sure," she said, barely looking up. I will always give her credit for that.
     I called the teacher back. "We're there," I said. This was a Wednesday afternoon. Tomorrow was too soon. I still had to get the truck from Midway. And airplane tickets back. "Friday," I told her. She was very happy. "I assure you we will pack that auditorium," she said. Which seemed odd. That confidence. As did, when I asked for the school's address, her not knowing. I asked if she would mind if I called the principal, just to get a few quotes about her. She said of course not and gave me his name.
     Acts of generosity are alien to me. I don't tutor kids or volunteer at soup kitchens. It isn't in my nature. But now I was elated. Talking to these kids would be a kind of atonement, for my being in general such a pitiless bastard. I have always loved the story of Jonah, for how he squirms when God tries to send him to Nineveh to preach. Maybe, I told myself, this is a sign. Maybe there's some kid in Detroit who needs Mary Mitchell and me to give him a good talking to. How could I even consider dodging this mission? I'd end up inside a whale.
     The next day I planned to scoot to Midway, get the truck, then bring it home. I'd pick up Mary Friday morning bright and early and we could set out for Detroit to bring those kids the good news about mathematics and racial harmony. Then I remembered the principal. I placed a call.
     "That sounds farfetched," he said, adding the teacher had just come back from a medical leave which "might have affected her judgment."
     The truck trick was odd, I agreed. But it goaded us toward Detroit.
     "We have to check with our district before we do something like that," he said. "She should have checked with me. There is an activity request. I have to go through my office of communications, and follow other protocols. I would put everything on hold."
    So we shouldn't come? I said, disappointed. No, he said, don't come.
     I knew I should have been happy--off the hook!--but I felt terrible, like I had ratted out the teacher. "I had to call the principal, right?" I asked several colleagues. "That was only prudent. Right?"
     The teacher called, crestfallen, to thank me. They had walked her off school grounds after I phoned the principal and told her not to come back until she had a psychological screening. She seemed to blame the principal, for not warming to news of her drive to Chicago and her invitation to the paper. And while I'm all for math, and for loving your students, and passionate teaching, I found myself arguing with her.
     "How can you expect your kids to follow rules and function in a complex society if their teacher won't?" I asked. She didn't see my point.
     Since then, she's sent me thick packets of letters from her students, many saying they haven't learned anything since she's been away. That was meant as support for her, but it seemed to me more of an indictment. What kind of teacher would be proud that her students stopped learning in her absence? Not that I don't have sympathy. Her heart seems pure. And seven years in a tough urban high school could drive anyone close to the edge, if not around the bend. But sometimes you have to follow the rules. A math teacher, of all people, should know that.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 21, 2003

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Life back to normal, alas, for vaccinated


     The booths at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company on Clark Street are small. But the six of us jammed in well enough last Thursday night. True, when my napkin slid off my knee and onto the floor I only momentarily considered trying to somehow snake my hand down and reach for it — a physical impossibility — before simply asking the waiter for another.
     If you are unfamiliar with the Lincoln Park fixture, that’s because it’s not one of the behemoths of the Chicago pizza world, no Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s. Here, you purchase not deep dish or thin crust pizza, but a sui generis concoction of cheese and dough baked into a bowl and flipped over. We usually skip it and make a meal out of just a salad and the parmesan-dusted Mediterranean bread — it’s that good. There aren’t many restaurants where you eagerly anticipate the salad dressing; this is one of them.
     But we had newcomers — our sons’ girlfriends — who of course had to try the pizza pot pie to achieve the Full Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Experience. Of the six, I was the odd man out. The professional status of the others were: one assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois, aka my wife; three recent law school graduates studying eight hours a day for the bar exam next week, otherwise known as my sons and Girlfriend B, plus Girlfriend A, still in her third year at NYU Law.
     You’d think at some point, while conversation flowed around the Rule Against Perpetuities, post-bar-exam trips and the tax benefits of living in New Jersey that somebody would turn to me and say, “What, are you not a lawyer?” But that would require more attention than a dad typically receives in these situations. I knew my job here was to keep my mouth shut and pay for everything, a task I performed admirably, if I say so myself. Although I did slip up once and begin to speak about reading literature, prompting my wife to immediately manage, somehow, to reach under the table and tap my knee, the international signal for, “You’re talking. Why are you talking? Don’t talk.”
     Otherwise, I was on my best behavior. Girlfriend A has been around for over a year, but Girlfriend B, a recent development, had never met us before. I withheld my natural question: “Why are you here? Are you crazy?” and instead asked, “Where did you go, undergraduate?” When she answered, “University of Southern California,” I nodded sagely and said the first thing to pop into mind: “Trojans.” Their mascot. That’s what I meant, anyway, not Trojans the brand of prophylactics, though I did instantly worry about my comment being interpreted that way, that I’d inadvertently said an off-color remark that would be joyfully seized by my sons and dangled in my face for the next decade. They didn’t seem to notice.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Flashback 1996: "Protest over theater heavy on melodrama"

     Former Alderman Bernie Hansen (44th) died Sunday. Figuring that I must have spoken to him at some point, which isn't typically true about today's crop of City Council zeds, I went digging and found this from 25 years ago.    
     What impresses me is that, even though I was a quarter century younger, it's so marinated in cynicism. It's almost pickled. If anything, I'm more cheery now than then, which is the reverse of how it's supposed to be.
    A bit of update is in order: the project was scrapped due to neighborhood resistance. Mike Quigley became congressman for the 5th District. 

     The thought of community protest leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I'm not sure why, but I'd have a hard time opposing anything built in my neighborhood, no matter what it was. They could tear down the lovely gray stones on my street and start building an oil refinery and I probably would just tense my jaw and walk on.
     Maybe it comes from being a journalist. I've seen too many concerned citizens righteously banding together to fight to keep an AIDS hospice or a group home for the handicapped or a children's swing set from blighting their neighborhoods and lowering their property values.
     Maybe it's cowardice. When the city began covering the lovely old red cobblestone alley behind our street with asphalt, I briefly considered seizing the banner of protest and trying to stop it. But it was a momentary impulse, a fantasy, the way some drivers, waiting for a train to pass at a railroad crossing, muse about abandoning their cars and hopping the freight to points unknown.
     Asphalt could be an improvement. I can't trust myself to judge, because I know that owning property blinds people to such evaluations. It makes them selfish and oversensitive. Jesus could come down to Earth and start curing the sick, and very quickly the neighbors would complain to the city, "That glow of goodness surrounding His head—it shines directly into my bedroom window at night. . . ." "The shout of joy the sick give when they're healed—it frightens my dog!"
     Still, despite paying a mortgage, my first reaction to news that a giant, 16-screen cinema and shopping center is to be built at Broadway and Surf, two blocks from my house, was this: "Whee!"
     Movies are fun. Shopping is fun. Adding joy was the prospect of a dreary strip of Broadway being torn down, a block of gritty, empty, decaying storefronts, punctuated by a few dingy businesses, such as the establishment apparently called "LIVE NUDE DANCERS." Anything would be an improvement. They could replace it with a hog rendering plant and I'd be happy.
     Here at last, I thought, was one project that no one could oppose. So I was more than a little surprised to see a bright orange flier from something called the Residents' Committee Concerning the Broadway-Surf Development. The flier was headlined: "a 16-screen, 3800-seat movie theater! 7 stories tall—more than 77 feet! traffic of 350 cars, & trucks loading!"
     Struck by the flier's urgency, I compared it to my benchmark of wild alarm, a cardboard poster from Abundant Life Ministries on South Cottage Grove, headlined "WARNING—AWAKE! AWAKE! YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!" I keep it over my desk.
     The similarities in tone were striking. Residents' Committee: "A SEVEN-STORY CONCRETE MONOLITH, ruining the value of your home, whether you own or rent!" Abundant Life: "NO WATER IN HELL! TORMENT FOREVER!"
    The committee flier announced a meeting at the Wellington Avenue Church Wednesday night, and as a student of hysteria, I decided to go.
     My central concern beforehand was that I would be alone, or nearly, forced to interact with the fervid organizers, waving literature in my face.
     To my shock, 400 people showed up, including the would-be developers, clutching their drawings with that sunken-eyed, haunted look so typical of people in their situation.
     While parking and traffic seem to be the central valid concern about the proposed cinema, residents couldn't resist raising every objection imaginable. "Teenagers" and "riffraff" would invade the neighborhood. Popcorn would be littered, attracting "rodents and insects." One woman at the back of the room warned that our "mothers and sisters and daughters" would face an increased threat of rape, presumably by young men driven to frenzy by Demi Moore films.
     Still, as far as these meetings go, this one was relatively tame. The crowd only hissed and booed a little when people spoke in favor of the project.
     Some speakers failed to understand that, despite our democracy, the community can't just vote to keep the project out. Ald. Bernie Hansen's name was invoked, in the hope that he would bend to popular will, which of course was overwhelmingly opposed to the project. Hansen wasn't there, but his aide, Mike Quigley, was, and he reminded the residents that they had been against restricting the area's zoning when development was still theoretical, and therefore good, and not specific, and therefore bad. He poured oil on the waters by dangling the possibility of some as-yet-unnamed political maneuver thwarting the developers.
     But his boss, in a conversation the next day, seemed to think that while the project, in general, was a done deal, the developers might yet find it in their hearts to work with the community to change the particulars. Hansen added the Chicago version of "or else."
     "Things get tied up," he said, philosophically. "Time is money. There are ways of stalling things, of making things a little more difficult. Not that you could stop them. But it makes them more attentive toward the community needs. I don't think you are going to make anybody happy."

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 30, 1996

Monday, July 19, 2021

‘If it gets cut, where do the kids go?’


     You never know what you’ll find at the library.
     Strolling into the Niles-Maine District Library Friday afternoon, its entrance decorated with colorful yarn creations, I noticed the “HOT PICKS” shelf holding a copy of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” I've been meaning to read it—her "The Warmth of Other Suns" is an essential American text.
     Grabbing the book, I settled into one of the comfortable blue chairs and read the first chapter, about the 2016 election.
     “The election would set the United States on a course toward isolationism, tribalism, the walling in and protecting of one’s own,” Wilkerson writes, “the worship of wealth and acquisition at the expense of others.”
     That’s the reason I came here. A reader alerted me to what he described as “the cabal of four right-wing library-haters who took control of the 7-member Niles Library board, pushed out the executive director, and are slashing the budget, slashing the hours, cancelling orders for new books and a new roof. They especially don’t want any foreign-language books because people oughta learn English.”
     Can that be true?
     “It is,” said Niles Mayor George D. Alpogianis. “What they’re asking for, in my opinion, is ludicrous. Big politics are starting to trickle down into smaller communities and are now hitting our libraries. The library has always been a safe haven. I have five children, and we’ve spent hundreds of hours in the library. We’ve always felt good about it.”
     Many Niles residents aren’t feeling very good about their library lately. Like all local issues, the complexities and personalities involved can be numbing.
     The basic situation seems to be four board members applying a Reaganite kill-the-beast approach to their local library, throwing out anything that isn’t about stacking books in a room — no yoga for seniors, no librarians visiting schools. A bare-bones library run by people who hate libraries and hate most of the people they serve.
     “If havoc is what you want, havoc is what you’ve got,” said the mayor.

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Sunday, July 18, 2021

"Remember the Maine!"


     Many communities have a square, a little park at the center of their downtown. My hometown, Berea, Ohio has a triangle, aptly called "The Triangle," and I was strolling around it with the friends we were visiting in May, on our way out to Virginia for our younger son's graduation.     
    "Wait a minute," I said, breaking away from our group. "I want to go look at that plaque made out of a piece of the Maine."
     I hadn't seen it in a decade or two, but I knew it was there, somewhere. It took a bit of searching. For an uneasy moment I thought it had been carted away. Not every tribute that is taken down is done so because it's become offensive; some just are irrelevant. 
     But there it was, an actual memento, cast from a piece of the ship that blew up in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898. That fact must have impressed me as a child and stuck in mind. "Cast from metal recovered from the USS Maine," it says on the plaque, the way after 9/11 pieces of the Twin Towers were worked into memorials. 
     It was a similar attack, maybe, with a considerable loss of life. The USS Maine sank with a loss of most of its crew. Hit by a mine, it was believed at the time, and the sinking was cast as provocation and atrocity and blamed on the Spanish, who were trying to put down a Cuban independence movement. "Remember the Maine!" became a rallying cry, and the U.S. entered into one of its more lopsided imperialist wars.
     I pass it along as a reminder that monuments do, in fact, influence us. I know what the Maine was, not because of any history class, but because of this green oxidized slab of bronze that I passed regularly for the first 18 years of my life. The memorial doesn't mean I particularly venerate the Maine—some historians suspect it was blown up, not by a Spanish mine, but through some ineptness in the management of the ship's engines and coal supplies. I could see that. My concern was nostalgic, not historic. Some U.S. history books never even mention the Maine, and probably just as well. You can't remember everything.
     Though there is a value to the story. The moral of the Maine sinking is to remember the dubious excuses we use for going to war—like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or the weapons of mass destruction that weren't there. They seem so important at the time. But they're really not. We say we remember them, and we do, for a time. Then we forget and move on.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Rambling Notes: The South of the North

     The less preface I add to this, the better.  Without further ado, the Saturday report from Caren Jeskey. Strap in, you're in for a wild ride:

    “I send you a postcard. It says ‘Pulaski at night.’ Greetings from Chicago, city of light. City of light. Come back to Chicago, city of light, city of light.” 
                                                          —Andrew Bird
     It’s not easy being from a fabulous, international city. Home calls to all of us, but for many, home does not offer the richness of the city of wild garlic. Still, it was just not enough. I knew there was a reason I had not unpacked my car.
     After six long weeks back (after living in Austin Texas for 7 years), I found myself propelled south once again. I realized “I don’t have to be here,” and my steering wheel did the rest. While I felt welcomed in many ways, coming back to Chicago was not what I had expected. Life seemed so much easier, more harmonious in the music capitol of the world. 
In retrospect, living amidst a sea of Peter Pans who will never grow up but will have fun until their dying days is appealing. I used to criticize their hedonism in my quest to “mature” but since I don’t have the answers who’s to say who is right? 
     Coming home reminded me of my failings. In Texas I can be someone new. I am not painted into boxes by anyone because my friends are relatively new. They met me as an adult rather than holding old images in their minds, images that cloud their ability to see me clearly. To listen actively, instead of assuming they know who I am.
     In Austin I always feel like I am on vacation. It’s not really home, but it’s a place I can explore and stay alive, stay curious.
     So I am back in the Lone Star State, at last. Ah! I’ve missed you. Pick-up trucks that push me off the road. A land where science isn’t real. Fantasy is more fun anyway. Maybe I’ll become a flat-earther. Now that seems amazing. Biking on a smooth plane forever and ever? And if it ends I am sure God will save me. How comforting.
     I’ve missed the eclectic gardens and street art that seems to pop up everywhere. Horses and cowboys and real country music. Souped up hotrods racing around— Harleys rumbling my insides. I guess a place can grow on you.
     I’ve missed the endless greenery and 90 degree temps. Seeing all of my neighbors out there running and biking and walking and paddling. Such an active city!
     Chicago, that is. You see, I did not leave. I was just joshin’. I am still here. I’ve noticed that Chicago and Austin are very similar. Everything I described above happened in Edison Park, Norwood Park, and Park Ridge. Who’d-a thunk it? Not me.
     I’ve managed to stay in a very specific enclave for most of my life. Rogers Park, Uptown, Edgewater, Boystown, Lakeview, Wicker Park, downtown, Hyde Park, Oak Park, Evanston, and the Southeast side of Chicago. Where I meet kindred spirits around every corner.
     The past six weeks living on the Northwest side has really opened my eyes. 
As a kid I had openly racist family members who lived on the far south side in Hegewisch. Up here on the northwest side the climate is similar; well-kept homes with manicured lawns, and lots of police presence. Neighbors have screwed blue lightbulbs into the sockets on their porches to support “Blue Lives.” One home has flooded the entire exterior with blue. Blue Lives Matter flags pepper the houses and businesses. These are the same folks I felt I had to get away from in my younger days. As painful as it is to be estranged from family, I’d become enraged every time I’d hear the “n” word spoken, and I did, often. I once made the relative who was hosting us break down in tears after I confronted a Bud drinking good ol’ boy neighbor who had joined us. As I recall, we left the party and as my folks drove us home they told me how proud they are of me. Still, that kind of family drama is never fun.
     I felt scared during my walkabouts on the NW side. It seemed I was in a fortress, and since I have several family members who are cops I know that fierce protection of their home court might mean hair trigger reactions to perceived and not real threats. I say this because I was harassed more than once when I brought POC into white areas in a way that never, ever happened when I was alone or with other white people. I was considered a possible enemy for having a POC in my presence. It was terrifying and embarrassing— for example I was driving with a friend past my hight school on a weekend drive and got pulled over “for having a broken taillight” BS.
     I was struck that the cops' homes were modest; small compared to the fancy mansions just a few blocks farther west. That made me a little bit sad— those who rally for blue lives? What are they really doing for officers? Their pocketbooks? Their mental health?. I heard about another Chicago police officer's suicide today. He was just 24. This was the third death by suicide of a CPD officer this year. The rigid standoff we are in is a lose-lose for all.
     When I passed people, almost no one said hi; an insulated community where strangers are not to be trusted. Thank goodness I packed up and moved east this week, to Ravenswood, where I fit every stereotype Peter Sagal jokes about in his NPR games show "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me."  I’m a Birkenstock wearing foodie who reduces, reuses and recycles. I’ll talk to you about farm to table products any day, and I want to know where the best freshly harvested mushrooms can be found. I love the Sunday New York Times, and I like my coffee freshly ground each day.
     It saddens me to know that my kinfolk in the O’Hare flight path land cannot comprehend why Black Lives Must Matter. They do not have any understanding of what it must be like to live under the shadow of harassment at all times.
     Yes, the lives of our public servants do matter. But why can’t they see that their lives have always mattered more than Black lives in this city? Not only that, but Black lives have been smote.
     Now that’s criminal.
     When I hear comments about the “scum” who are killing each other with gang violence, I feel physically sick. Those who say that are racist to the bone. How can they continue ignoring the history of POC in the U.S.? Still?
     I don’t have a lot of hope that one day we will all live together harmoniously, loving and trusting each other and sharing resources equally. But I am a dreamer and I am not giving up all hope just yet. If that sounds naive that’s OK with me, for isn’t it better to feel what joy we can rather than wallowing in pain?
“It’s not about win or lose, ‘cause we all lose when they feed on the souls of the innocent; blood-drenched pavement. Keep on moving’ though the waters stay ragin’. In this maze you can lose your way, your way. It might drive you crazy but doc’t let it faze you no way, no way!”

Friday, July 16, 2021

Relax, Cook County is not spying on your dog as it poops


     Look at this photo, sent by a reader.
     “ATTENTION DOG OWNERS,” the sign announces. “As part of a pilot program between Northwestern University and the Department of Public Health, this area has been selected for enhanced dog waste ordinance enforcement. DNA MATCHING AND DRONE SURVEILLANCE IN EFFECT.”
     In bright magenta.
     “Found this sign on my block (6500 N. Greenview),” the reader wrote.
     What do you think?
     Have Cook County and Northwestern joined forces to monitor dog poop via drone?
     Like much disgorged by the internet, the sign evokes the “No, that couldn’t be, could it?” reflex. You want to dismiss a thing as an obvious fraud. But there’s that little backdoor of doubt. Stranger things have happened.
     First to Mr. Google. Slim pickings. A company in the Netherlands, Dogdrones, in 2017 said it would use drones, in conjunction with on-the-ground robots, to clear neighborhoods of dog poop. I sent emails to the two founders, not expecting a reply.
     Queries to Cook County and Northwestern — a process we professional journalists call “finding out if something is true.” I recommend it heartily to those who attempt the same by holding up new information against their engrained prejudices to see how well they match.
     Northwestern started the country’s first forensic crime lab, trying to solve the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. So this would be in their wheelhouse.
     Alas, no.
     “The University is unaware of any such study,” said Jon Yates, assistant vice president of communications.
     The Cook County Department of Public Health pointed out something I ought to have known: it has jurisdiction over the enormous realm that is Cook County except Chicago, Skokie, Oak Park, Stickney and Evanston. They have their own health departments.
     “One of the commissioners saw those signs around Northwestern,” said Tom McFeeley, the county health department’s communications manager. “It’s posted outside their jurisdiction. That’s why the dog poop story doesn’t add up.”

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Flower power

     Rarity is overrated. Or, maybe, branding is underrated. Or rather, make that both.
     Take a look at the flower above. If I said it was an Illinois Chalkweed, an invasive species clogging the forest preserves, you wouldn't doubt my assessment, would nod at my hope that the folks at Cook County get on the stick and eradicate this blight before it destroys our native habitat. 
     But it's not. It's a "Ghost Orchid," according to the Chicago Botanic Garden. "You're looking at one of North America's rarest orchids," its plaque pants. "It is extraordinary to see the ghost orchid in bloom," the flower "world renown for its ethereal beauty."
     I'll take their word on it. To me, it's a pale paper figurine, dancing, eclipses by almost every other flower at the Botanic Garden. 
     Compare the Ghost Orchid to the Bumble Rumble Collarette Dahlia, below. First, a far better name, right? Second, well, just look at it. Colorful, which is what flowers are supposed to be about. Fun too; it's a birthday party of a flower, a circus clown bloom.
     But not rare, or highlighted by the Botanic Garden with its own little enclosure, ballyhooed by signs nearby ordering passersby to go check out the fabulous Ghost Orchid. Given the same treatment, a stalk of straw would be marveled at.
     Yes, there's no accounting for taste, and orchids are a cult all their own. But the Botanic Garden is busily drumming for the meh Ghost Orchid, w
hile the Bumble Rumble does its thing unheralded and unpraised. I guess that's life.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Life through the eyes of Edith Renfrow Smith


Edith Renfrow Smith receives her honorary doctorate from Grinnell College in 2019.

     A big part of my job is brevity. To take a story, sift it down to its essentials, and tell the tale in 719 words. But that seemed a crime with a life as long and interesting as Edith Renfrow Smith's, even running at more than twice the length, as my first column on her did Monday. So I divided out a second part, and still had to overlook important aspects to her life.

     “There is no message!” objected Edith Renfrow Smith, when I suggested that readers will expect her to share wisdom gleaned over her long life — she turns 107 on Wednesday. “People worked hard! And didn’t let the kids run the street. They always kept their children busy doing something and they were always looking to the future.”
     I’d call that wisdom aplenty.
     On Monday, Sun-Times readers were introduced to Smith, and learned about her extraordinary life: how her grandparents were born into slavery, how she became the first Black graduate of Grinnell College and came to Chicago to work in 1937. Though we never even got to the bulk of her career, from 1954 to 1976, as a Chicago Public Schools teacher.
     That’s how I met her; thanks to a CPS colleague and reader, George Lopatka.
     “I was just out of college when Beethoven school opened,” said Lopatka, 81. “I was a 22-year-old. She was 47, a master teacher.”
     For years, he’d phone her. Recently Lopatka decided to visit, and asked if I wanted to come along. I went, knowing absolutely nothing of the marvelous person who awaited me. Just the opposite: expecting every cliche of old age that I’d be embarrassed to articulate here. Imagine my surprise.
George Lopatka and Edith Renfrow Smith
     Lopatka told the story of Muhammad Ali coming to their school.
     “He was telling the kids, ‘Black is beautiful,’” Lopatka remembered. “Before that, you’d never say somebody was ‘Black.’ ... ‘Black’ was an insult. I would break up a fight, and ask the kids, ‘What are you fighting for?’ and one would say, ‘He said my mother was Black.’”
     One moment in a whirl of history Smith has seen. Yet she seems a person who seemingly glided untouched through a century of struggle. She doesn’t present herself as someone who had to overcome anything, but rather as someone blessed.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Not everyone is dug in all the time

"Progress of the American Negro," by Charles White (Howard University Gallery of Art)

     The days when I happily crossed swords with any reader who could flop his fingers onto a keyboard are long past. That just leads to quick deterioration into insults, and the aggressor running off to complain to my boss—nobody cries like a bully—wasting his time and mine.
     So I rarely answer emails from two groups of people—Trump supporters and haters. Were they open to reason, they wouldn't hold the opinions they have.
     But occasionally an email will have something so patently false that I'll be lured in, such as this one, which postulated the notion that you never see stories about gang violence. That drew a reply, against my better judgment. I also used the email in my column about the strange ritual of tallying shooting deaths in Chicago, "We keep track of shootings like a box score." Which lead to an exchange out of the ordinary, as you will see. The initial email read:

Biden is here to talk about the violence in Chicago. Everyone knows what the problem is. Why is there never a story about the low life, scum bag gang bangers who have absolutely no respect for human life. I'll tell you why. Because people are afraid of the gangs. Your never going to submit an article calling out the gangs for their killing of innocent people. I'll tell you a little secret. I'm a 58 year old white male. So everything i say is wrong. But i do not understand the BLM movement. 60 to a 100 people shot a week. Most of them black. Do these people not matter? I'm extremely happy with the sentence that Chauvin got for killing George Floyd. I have a question for you. Would it be racist to write an article saying that the shootings in the news every week are all from black gang bangers. Put the faces of the leaders of these gangs on the front page. I'm tired of blaming these shootings on Republicans and democrats. The blame lies with the black gang bangers. Their spineless leaders have names.

     I considered remarking on the "Oh poor me!" quality to the "everything i say is wrong" line, but resisted, instead writing back with a link:

That story you say you never see runs all the time. I would speculate about why it always eludes you, but then you would start crying about THAT, and frankly, I've had enough for one day. Thanks for writing.

    I never expected to hear back. So imagine my surprise when I got this:

Thank you for your article today. That was a good explanation of the BLM movement. And i needed to hear that. I wish the BLM would talk more about the violence in Chicago and what they think should be done to help stop the violence. Sometimes i need to be hit over the head to see things. Going forward i will give my little speech i sent you the other day a rest. And try to be more understanding. Not that it matters but i do care about the people being shot every day in Chicago. I cant imagine the pain of going through something like that. I'm like the police chief you mentioned in your article, I lash out because i really don't have an answer. I'll try and stay open, helpful and hopeful. Have a good weekend.

     At the risk of overstating the case, I don't believe I get one email a year showing that sort of re-evaluation. Frankly, I might have never gotten one. But one is enough. Perhaps there's hope for our country. I wrote back:

     That's an encouraging email. Thank you. Seriously—and since sarcasm is the water we swim in lately, I feel the need to say that. People are so dug in. Your email helped me to address a topic that puts me in a bind. To me, it's cowardice to say nothing, but as a white guy living snugly in hyper-safe Northbrook, what can I possibly add that is of any use to anyone? We all need to be open to suasion, to change, to evaluating our beliefs in light of the evidence before us.