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Sunday, October 31, 2021

Flashback 1997: Reality is scarier than City Hall's decorations

City Hall, 2021

     I was hot-footing across the Loop to meet a pal for lunch Thursday and couldn't resist ducking into City Hall to check out their Halloween decorations. Most prominent was this ofrenda, or Day of the Dead shrine, complete with photographs of fallen Chicagoans and food offerings to their spirits. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I also took note of the City Hall Halloween trappings, producing a snarky, young, rather Rex Huppke-ish column..

     When somebody told me that City Hall is decorated for Halloween, I had to stroll on over and take a look.
     It is a surprising sight, particularly if you enter from the north, through the Randolph Street door. You walk down the corridor to the central lobby and are presented with a choice.
     To the left, the unadorned elevator banks for the County Building. The only decoration: a sign touting Cook County Disability Awareness Month.
     To the right, City Hall and Halloween.
     Not only decorated, but decorated a lot. Pumpkins. Witch flags. They've built an arbor of sorts, with pots of flowers and a tiny field of cornstalks and a big grinning jack-o'-lantern.
     The reason: Mayor Daley is a big fan of Halloween.
     I noted the scarecrows and smiled, telling myself, "Of course, they'd only go so far as Halloween Lite. None of the heavy stuff; no bloody corpses, no terrifying ghouls. Not from the city. They wouldn't want to offend people."
     I was thinking how surprising it is even to see a big cardboard cut-out of Tweety Bird saying, "Twick or Tweet"—hasn't some assistant corporation counsel with a speech impediment complained by now? Then I saw them.
     The skeletons.
     Two big, life-size, scary rubber ones, sprawled on benches.
     I also noticed the ghosts—three little ghosts, with round mouths shrieking "Boo," wearing pointy black witch hats, trailing white sheets in tatters.
     Skeletons and ghosts at City Hall. Either somebody's got a wonderfully wry sense of humor or they're all dumber than even I had imagined.
     The ghosts are what really surprised me, given that ghost payrolling has been honed to an art form right on the premises.
     That federal probe into aldermanic corruption—what did they call it? Oh yes: "Operation Haunted Hall."
     Now that's an idea for next year. Why offer such a generic tribute to Halloween when we could take advantage of our city's rich heritage to put on a far scarier display?
     Next year, City Hall could present a big rubber Fred Busse, the mayor 90 years ago, clutching his famous safe deposit box full of stocks from a company that did business with the city.
     From the ceiling, flying aldermen, pinky rings aflame, fists stuffed with play money.
     And why settle for boring scarecrows when you could have a mechanical Ald. Tom Keane? He was to Richard J. Daley what Patrick Huels is to his son: close political ally and all-round big money boy. A recording could play Keane's crowing "Daley wanted power, and I wanted to make money, and we both succeeded." There's a boast that hasn't lost any currency despite the passage of decades.
     Keane was convicted on 18 counts of federal mail fraud and conspiracy, by the way. After a Sun-Times series exposed it all. Ooh. Eerie how some things never change.
     Come to think of it, why settle for sham rubber figures when we can have the real thing? Why not get Jesse Evans transferred over? Make his cell part of the Halloween display. He can lunge through the bars at passersby, maybe shouting, "Food! Food!" in honor of the ridiculous and shameful hunger strike he held to protest the workings of the criminal justice system. That would scare the kiddies plenty.
     In fact, lots of former aldermen, who are still around, could be hired at a fraction of their former city salaries to impersonate themselves in the City Hall Chamber of Past Ghosts.
     Why not set Louis Farina pacing back and forth in front of the elevator banks, dragging money boxes at the ends of chains wrapped around his body, a la Jacob Marley.
     Or Wallace Davis. The last time I saw him he was working in his catfish restaurant. He could make an appearance as a cautionary tale to all those power brokers in their Brioni suits and Hermes ties. "Be careful," he could say, "or you'll end up wearing polyester and snaps to work."
     Sure, it would shame them a bit, but didn't they shame us? Doesn't our city struggle to present itself to the world as a modern and progressive place, the home of Michael Jordan and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum? How many bad aldermen will it take before peasant children in China greet tourists visiting from Chicago by rubbing their thumb and forefinger together and saying, "Ooo, Che-ca-go! Gimme gimme gimme."
     Halloween is, if nothing else, a flexible holiday that changes to reflect the times. In past years the kids dressed as Power Rangers and ballerinas. This year maybe they'll be paparazzi and Marv Albert. Maybe next year you'll have 8-year-olds in imitation silk suits yelling "Trick or treat!" They'll make cuff links out of stray pairs of dice and put dime store rings on their pinkies.
     Going door-to-door, they'll collect their candy in shoeboxes and brown paper bags. Just like the big boys do.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 26, 1997

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