Thursday, March 31, 2022

Relax: Chicago has done this before

     When news broke Wednesday afternoon that Chicago is being considered as host of the 2024 Democratic National Convention, the reporter behind the scoop, NBC News national political correspondent (and my former colleague) Natasha Korecki tweeted out my story about the 50th anniversary of the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention, which so scarred the city and sullied its reputation.
     While it’s nice to be remembered, I’d hate for that tumultuous event to once again define what happens whenever Chicago hosts out-of-town guests. That disaster isn’t the only convention we’ve had. Chicago is the most popular city in the country for such events, having hosted 11 Democratic and 14 Republican gatherings including the first one in — did none of you pay attention in school? —1860 when the newly-formed Republican Party, worried that huddling in an Eastern city would “run a big chance of losing the West,” picked Chicago as a symbol of “audacity.”
     They gathered at a large log building at the corner of what is now Lake and Wacker Drive and nominated, indeed rather audaciously, a homespun downstate lawyer and failed senatorial candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was tempted to hurry to Chicago, but his cronies waved him off, worried he would undo the backroom deals they struck to get him the nod. “Honest Abe” was a fine campaign slogan, but could be difficult in practice.
     I won’t go through all the conventions, there are history books for that. Though Chicago can boast that our conventions tend to stand out, and not just because of rioting. There was the 1920 Republican Convention nominating nonentity Warren G. Harding, basically because he looked like a president and nobody knew he had an illegitimate daughter, the deal putting “smoke-filled room” into the political vernacular (actually smoke-filled rooms, 408-10 of the Blackstone Hotel).
     Or the 1932 Democratic convention where Franklin D. Roosevelt helped usher in our modern campaign age with two political firsts: being the first nominee to show up and accept in person, and the first presidential candidate to fly in an airplane. The flight was delayed due to storms, and FDR explained, apologetically, “I have no control over the winds in heaven.”
     Our next convention could very well instead reflect the 1996 Democratic convention, sending Bill Clinton on his way to re-election and helping revitalizing the West Side an in general allowing the city to shine instead of screw up.

To continue reading, click here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Tempestuous tenure of ‘Jane Byrne’

    This Saturday it will be exactly three years since Lori Lightfoot crushed the once formidable Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and was elected mayor of Chicago by an almost 3-to-1 margin, taking all 50 wards.
     A post-mortem would be premature, as Lightfoot’s still got a year to go. Maybe she’ll manage to pull the ripcord before hitting the canyon floor. I’m rooting for her.
     Yet it’s safe to say that, despite the singular role race plays in Lightfoot’s rhetoric, as a 1,001-uses solvent to be sprayed in all directions, trying to squeeze out of whatever jam she finds herself in, few critics compare Chicago’s third Black mayor (not to forget Eugene Sawyer, though many people, myself included do) to the first, the ebullient Harold Washington, who faced fierce opposition with very few Lightfootian cries of “poor me.”
     The mayor who seems most relevant to Lightfoot, alas, is Jane Byrne. Like Lightfoot, Byrne was female. Like Lightfoot, being mayor of Chicago is the only elective office Byrne ever held. And as to whether Lightfoot will also serve a single term and be shown the door in favor of someone who can actually do the job, time will tell.
     Until then, WTTW is debuting an hour documentary Friday, “Jane Byrne,” kicking off the new season of its “Chicago Stories” series. It’s a solid introduction to Byrne for those who might be unfamiliar. Even those well-schooled in her story — I read her fine autobiography, “My Chicago,” and wrote her obituary for the Sun-Times — will find new nuggets they hadn’t known before.
     In 1960, Byrne was a young military widow. Her husband, a Marine pilot, had crashed approaching what was then the Glenview Naval Air Station. Plunging into campaign work for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy, Byrne came to the attention of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who found her a role in his administration.
     Her presence was supposed to be a sign of mid-1960s progressivism. The trouble with Janie Byrnes — as Daley called her — was that she didn’t resign herself to being window dressing, proudly displayed in her sinecure as the commissioner of sales, weights and measures.
     Instead, Byrne took her job seriously.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Michael Madigan: The Man Who Ran Illinois

Mike Madigan, far right, at the 2013 signing of the Religious Freedom and Fairness Act .

    I love writing freelance, and have done so for some of the top publications in the world: Esquire, Rolling Stone, Forbes, Granta, The Washington Post ... quite a long list really.
    The reasons hardly need mentioning. Other publications provide an outlet for stories that the paper isn't interested in—there was no way the Sun-Times wanted 6,000 words on being disfigured. But Mosaic, the London website did. It also sent me to Japan for a teddy bear's birthday party, which the paper wasn't going to do either. Esquire asked me to shadow Rahm Emanuel for three days. Men's Journal once hired me to paddle a canoe down the Chicago River. Stuff like that.
    The money's nice, of course. There's also a sense of validation. For a moment, I'm not just a local oddity, but a local oddity echoing faintly in the larger world.
     The requests haven't come in much lately, which I took to be the gathering isolation and irrelevance of age. So I was glad when the Washington Monthly asked me to read Ray Long's new book and write something about the disgrace of Michael Madigan. I asked the editor why he chose me—I have not exactly distinguished myself with my Springfield coverage (the lede is a sly way of saying, "This doesn't generally interest me, but...") He replied that I spoke to Dick Babcock's class at Northwestern seven years ago, and he was in it. A reminder: always be nice to young people coming up, because you never know when you'll be working for one.
    State legislators are like ants on a log. There are too many of them and they are too small, running around too fast to recognize as individuals, let alone track their efforts. Even if the log is in your backyard, why bother paying attention? Given the typical statehouse task—dragging bits of legislative leaf around—only the most dedicated political junkies even bother to try.
     Occasionally, though, one leader plants himself in the center of the action long enough to offer a pathway not just to understand what’s going on in one colony, but also to illuminate the general calamity poisoning our increasingly toxic national political culture: the money, influence, rule bending, and self-dealing that deform government at every level.Meet Michael J. Madigan, the tight-mouthed enigma at the center of the Illinois legislative anthill for more than a third of a century. Nicknamed “the Sphinx” for his expressionless silence and windblown longevity, Madigan was the last operative drive shaft from the old Daley Democratic machine—forged by Richard J. Daley, Chicago’s infamous mayor from 1955 to 1976— where clout was built on a system of mutual support: You vote the right way, and I’ll make sure your son gets a park district job. Throughout his career, Madigan was chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, committeeman of Chicago’s 13th Ward, and speaker of the Illinois House for 36 years, the longest-serving leader of any legislative body in American history.
     Reviled by Republicans as “the center of all evil in state government,” Madigan endured while governors came and went. When Republican Jim Edgar became governor in 1991, Madigan didn’t return his phone calls for months. Madigan didn’t need him; he was served by a patronage army of 400 drones beholden to him for jobs, raises, and promotions, who would leap to campaign, knock on doors, and buttonhole commuters to sign petitions. (Or, in one infamous ploy, the opposite: hectoring residents of Madigan’s district to sign affidavits retracting their signatures on the nominating petitions of a 19-year-old who dared run against the state’s most powerful politician’s chosen alderman. The lad had no chance of winning, but so ruthlessly had the speaker’s operatives clawed signatures back that some 2,600 voters agreed to renounce signatures they had never given.)
     Madigan was an accepted reality of life in Illinois, like the weather, or, more accurate- ly, like God, a mysterious force in His Heaven, spinning works and mysteries.
     Then it all changed.
     First, the #MeToo revolution of 2018 rattled the Madigan organization, taking down his longtime chief of staff, Tim Mapes, and top aide, Kevin Quinn, amid accusations that Madigan didn’t do enough to stop them from sexually harassing their female colleagues. Sunlight started pouring through the cracks. Madigan gave the first deposition in his life. The U.S. Department of Justice’s federal investigation into Madigan’s alleged corruption circled nearer. For years, Madigan had used an electric utility company, Commonwealth Edison, as a “crony job service” that issued direct payments to Madigan’s allies, such as the $4,500 a month it funneled to the Cook County recorder of deeds, Ed Moody, for “consulting.” In return, Madigan advanced legislation that was favorable to the utility. He would also steer business to his private law firm, including clients who had business before the state.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Out like a lion

     “I’m starting to really hate the cold,” my wife said, and not for the first time. The sort of thing Midwesterners say after spring dangles a couple of delightful days in our field of vision — 60, 65, even 70 degrees — then rudely slaps us across the face with a wet sock of miserable, damp, penetratingly cold days. It was 21 degrees Monday morning.
     “Me too,” I mumbled.
     COVID-19 seems to have unmoored everyone, in more ways than one. Time expands and contracts like clocks in a Dali painting. Civility crumbles. Reason becomes a bruising dash through our neighbors’ gantlet of speculation, conspiracy theory and outright hallucination.
      We’re battered, tired, viewing the latest news through latticed fingers. We’ve also become unrooted, many of us. Americans are on the move, fleeing the frost, looking for some warm rock to hide under. A United States Census Bureau report released last week shows nine of the top 10 fastest-growing U.S. counties are in Arizona, Texas and Florida, where four of the top 10 fastest-growing metro areas are located.
     Yet, like everything else, it’s a blurred picture. Cities in all climates are losing people — Los Angeles County topped the list of dwindling metro areas in raw numbers, with a 184,465 resident drop from July 2020 to July 2021. (The population of New York County fell by an astounding 6.9% in one year.) The Chicago metro area is down 106,897 people; the Census Bureau describes the metro area as “Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI” (and readers give me grief for living in Northbrook; from a demographic perspective, I’m practically sharing a $10-a-month apartment on Wabansia with Nelson Algren).
     Though if you are looking for something positive, Cook County remains the second-largest U.S. county, with 5.1 million residents, behind only Los Angeles County. (Both benefit from a historical quirk — the five boroughs of New York City are five separate counties).
     Population is dwindling everywhere — nearly three-quarters of U.S. counties, 73%, are in decline. “Natural decrease occurs when there are more deaths than births in a population over a given time period,” the Census Bureau points out. “In 2021, fewer births, and aging population and increased mortality — intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic — contributed to a rise in natural decrease.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

"Nasty things"


     I don't like orchids, I thought, but did not say aloud, when Edie suggested we go to The Orchid Show: Untamed at the Chicago Botanic Garden. We already had four tickets, a benefit of our annual membership. They'd been on the magnetic board in the kitchen for months. I never suggested we go, not being an orchid fan. The show had been running since Feb. 12—last time we went to the Botanic Garden my wife suggested we go, but forgot the tickets at home. The show was closing Sunday. It was now or never; well, now or not for almost a year anyway.
     The weather was rainy and drippy and cold, mid-30s, perfect day to go to the show, which of course is indoors. We got in the car.
     "At least there won't be many people there," I predicted. Sometimes, perhaps because of the pandemic, the Botanic Garden seemed positively packed, at least when you first arrived. Once you get into the garden, toward the prairie and the greenhouses and such, the population thins out. Most people don't want to toddle too far past the entrance.
     I was certain the rain would keep everyone away. But the parking lot had plenty of cars, and obviously a good number of folks braved the showers to see the show. As we looked for a space, I remembered, for some odd reason, going to see the band Bread at Blossom Music Center in Cleveland in the mid-1970s. I'd never go of my own accord—as with orchids, I didn't like Bread—but was tagging along with others, and joked beforehand that no one would be there, that it would be us, alone with the band, playing forlornly on the stage, heads down, ashamed. Maybe they'd give up doing even that, set aside their instruments, come over, sit on the edge of the stage, and explain how they came up with lyrics like, "Baby I'm-a want you...." It didn't even make grammatical sense.
    I was shocked to see the venue jammed with Bread fans. Who could have imagined?
     The Orchid Show: Untamed was quite lovey, with orchids hanging from the ceilings high above the entrance room, and in the smaller greenhouses all manner of shapes and sizes and colors—purples and orchers, yellows and whites. Speckled, and banded and striped. The signage was on-point and interesting. I didn't not know that orchids are hearty survivors—the slogan for the show is "Nature Finds a Way"—and thrive around the globe, practically from pole to pole. After the eruption of Krakatoa, the first plants to sprout in the volcanic ash were orchids, and they're spring up in the most inhospitable places. 
    That isn't a reason not to like them; I didn't know that aspect about them, and lent them a grudging respect. They're the most beautiful weeds ever.
     I wondered if it might be anthropomorphic. There is a certain screaming face aspect to some orchids. Look at the orchid on the top of the page: eyes squinched, kind a bonnet. Something monstrous.
     No, that's not it. I gazed some more. Some are certainly very, ah, vulvic. Maybe not liking orchids is some kind of unconscious hostility toward women. No, that can't be it either—if it were, the idea would never come to me and, besides, I think women are just swell, in general.
     Then what?
     When I was growing up in Berea, the father of one of my sister's friends raised orchids, and I remember, once, visiting his home, with the large greenhouse off one side, which of course we had to admire. Maybe that was it. There was a strangeness to it, with its heat and humidity and its special lights and the hovering father pointing out this prize and that. He was an odd duck.
     So orchids are an oddity, the realm of eccentrics, the crazy aunt of the flower world, with her purple hair and batik. That felt closer.
      Is there an air of weirdness and marginality to orchids? The only product that comes from orchids is vanilla, from one type of orchid, vanilla planifolia. (Vanilla doesn't come from vanilla beans—that's a misnomer—they're actually pods). Vanilla isn't eccentric. Returning to sex, vanilla is the very definition of mainstream and ordinary, though that seems unfair: in ice cream preference vanilla runs neck-and-neck with chocolate in popularity. And everybody thinks chocolate is great. Maybe chocolate has a better PR firm).
     Edie didn't know I was puzzling through this, but she offered an observation closer to the mark. We were reading about the omnipresence of orchids, who they have been on earth for 110 million years, live in every clime and zone: above the Arctic circle, in deserts, on bare rocks—particularly surprising since their tiny seeds lack endosperm, and thus need to form symbiotic relationships with various fungi in order to germinate. (One locale where orchids are relatively scarce, I was surprised to learn in the Britannica, are rain forests).
     "How can they grow everywhere when I can't keep one alive?"
     Could that be it? I vague recall getting an orchid as a present from an admirer, taking it home and trying to keep the thing alive. Which I was unable to do. That seems a mean and petty reasons not to like such a varied and colorful realm of flowers. Because I killed one. Though people do generally have an easier time forgiving the wrongs that others have done then they do forgiving others for the wrongs they themselves have done against them. If that makes any sense. I was close to vowing to do better, and give orchids another chance.
     Then I put the question to my cousin Harry—we talk frequently about diverse topics. He reminded me of the opening of Raymond Chandler's mystery classic, "The Big Sleep," where  Philip Marlowe meets the invalid General in his greenhouse.  You can see the scene from the 1946 Howard Hawks noir film version with Humphrey Bogart here. In the book, the old man complains of his ailments and explains "the orchids are an excuse for the heat." Leading to this passage where the General asks:
     "Do you like orchids?"
     "Not particularly," I said.
     The General half-closed his eyes. "They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute."
     So there it is. At least it's not just me.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

North Shore Notes: Rose-Colored Glasses

     Saturday. Whew. Busy week. Interviews, paperwork, heading downtown midweek with the Thresholds homeless outreach team for Friday's column, all the usual obligations. It's a relief to sit slumped in the dugout with my left arm wrapped in ice and watch Caren Jeskey confidently trot to the mound to pitch relief. Her report: 

Design for the cover of "The Raven," by Edouard Manet (Met)


By Caren Jeskey

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!
            — from The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
   My sister’s 8 year old child was buckled into her carseat with me last weekend and asked “what do you know about that raven play?” After a bit of frustration on her part when I was not quite sure what she was talking about—adolescence seems to happen earlier and earlier, doesn’t it?—we settled on talking about the only theater-related black bird thing that came to my mind, the Raven Theatre on Clark and Granville. Improv classes teach us to pick up whatever our partner throws at us verbally, and run with it. This seemed to do the trick and my niece was on board with the conversation.
    From contemplating a world where live theater safely exists, I moved our bird talk on to Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven" to see if that rang a bell for her. She hadn't heard of it.
     A little later, at my house, she soaked in a warm tub—does winter ever end in Chicago?—and I read her a redacted (for maturity) version of the poem. She listened raptly, and mostly had no idea what Poe’s words meant. Just as the adults in my life did for me when I was learning Shakespeare at her age (I recall seeing Othello when I was 8, in Loyola University’s library on the lakefront) I gave her the words in modern English.
     I let her know that the person in the poem had lost the love of their life, Lenore. They thought, at the time of the writing of the poem, that they would never recover from the grief. We talked about how hard things happen in life that bring us down. Feelings sometimes change, and ideally people heal— even just a bit— from difficulties they thought they’d never get past.
     It’s hard to be chipper these days. Being artificially cheerful is exhausting. It seems inauthentic to be a Pollyanna, ignoring the strife of the world and always looking at the bright side of life. At the same time, Polyanna author Eleanor Porter might have been onto something when she cautioned against being “too busy wishing things were different to find much time to enjoy things as they were.” Just as my elders gave me hope in a world that was surely hard for them many times along the way, perhaps even unbearable, it’s important to keep some degree of hopefulness and positivity in my heart and mind when I can, especially for the children in my life.
     The raven episode had me thinking about the magnificence of birds. A client recently told me that eagles cast huge shadows on the ground, so if one is out hiking in an eagle rich area, a momentary cloud that washes over us might be a visit from one of our national birds. I took a brief hike in Harms woods recently, and such a shadow darkened my car as I was getting in. I looked up and all around but it was elusive, and had disappeared.
     On my North Shore walkabouts I often keep my head to the sky. A hawk darted past and perched on a tree the other day. I stalked it and waited until I was able to capture a mid-flight photo. One such dude pulled shoppers at Da Jewel out of their early COVID funks in fall of 2020 when he posted up on a bike rack outside of the store. He gave them something cool to talk about at an otherwise undeniably uncool time.
     I was once dive-bombed by a redwing blackbird in San Francisco while others captured it on a recording— they were camped out in the financial district enjoying watching passers-by anger the two winged creature as we innocently walked too close to his family’s nest.
     Another time, I was at a yoga retreat in the Bahamas, I was with a small group getting a tour of the grounds. All of a sudden I felt a firm hand on the top of my head, squeezing. The group stared in shock. I did not know what was happening. I crouched down laughing, thinking someone I knew must be pulling a prank by coming up from behind and palming my head. Suddenly the hand was gone and I swung around to see who was messing with me. No one was there. The group animatedly explained that a dove had landed on my head. I felt lucky somehow, though it was probably just trying to kill me.
     Pollyanna was an 11-year-old who lost her parents and was sent to live with her unhappy aunt just before World War I. She played the “glad game” and found the good in everything. Even though each of us knows that justice along with the power found in numbers can move mountains. So why don’t we rise up, en masse, and use this power to defeat the evils of the world?

Friday, March 25, 2022

Mending the frayed social safety net

     “Angels don’t speak English, they speak emotion,” Edgar, a gaunt 24-year-old, tells Ryann Billitteri as she approaches him outside the Taco Bell at Dearborn and Van Buren Wednesday afternoon. “The translation is through your life....”
     He continues, blending near-poetry and conspiracy theories, wild claims and philosophical riffing, as Billitteri, a caseworker at Thresholds, gently steers him out of the rain and into the restaurant, where she buys him a Taco Supreme (“If you could bless me with extra sour cream on the side,” he says) and tries to get Edgar to sign a form to help him get off the street and into housing. Where he sleeps now, he says, is “classified.”
     Edgar sits and talks. Billitteri, team lead of Thresholds’ homeless outreach program, listens, silently proffering a pen. But he doesn’t sign. She’s been trying for months.
     Only about a third of Illinoisans who need treatment for mental illness get it; social services in the state are perennially underfunded, trimmed to the bone after years of sweeping budget cuts.
     “Since time immemorial,” said Heather O’Donnell, senior vice president of public policy and advocacy at Thresholds, which provides a range of mental health, addiction and housing support for the disadvantaged, plus guiding the formerly incarcerated as they transition back into society. “This has been happening for decades; it’s just snowballing because of the pandemic.”

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

QAnon garbage bobs up in Senate committee room

     The shit that the Republican Party tolerates in its lowest depths has a way of floating to the top.
     We saw the latest example this week in the septic circus of the Senate confirmation hearing of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, dominated by two days of accusations that she was soft on child pornography spouting from half a dozen Republicans senators.
     Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, said, "I also see a record of activism and advocacy as it concerns sexual predators that goes back decades," regarding the 14, count 'em, 14 cases of the 1,000 Jackson has decided that relate to child porn or pedophilia. He had his own little chart of cases and worked out the percentages of the reductions in the sentences she gave as opposed to what prosecutors asked for.
    What he never pointed out was the sentences that Judge Jackson handed out put her smack in the middle of the average way judges handle these cases.  It's like condemning a judge for driving 27 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.
      Other topics came up. Cruz also launched into her about critical race theory, because she sits on the board of a Georgetown school that has certain books in its library and, of course, the idea being that, being Black, she would be a scourge on those unfortunate victims of history, American whites. Jackson was attacked for representing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and writing a brief suggesting buffer zones be used to keep hostile protesters away from women trying to have abortions.
      But those were passing feints; child pornography was the leitmotif, the theme, the dirty scab that GOP senators picked at for three days straight.
     Sen. Josh Hawley, senator from QAnon and also of Missouri, had his attack ready long before the hearing began.
     “I’ve been researching the record of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, reading her opinions, articles, interviews & speeches. I’ve noticed an alarming pattern when it comes to Judge Jackson’s treatment of sex offenders, especially those preying on children," he tweeted March 16. "Judge Jackson has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes, both as a judge and as a policymaker.”
     In the hearings, Hawley intentionally misquoted Jackson, such as when she was repeating a witnesses' statements back to them, as if the thoughts she was expressing were her own. 
     This is the same serious social issue that was first weaponized in the obscene 4Chan free-fire zone and emerged into the public eye as the 2016 conspiracy theory of a child sex ring that Hillary Clinton was running out of the non-existent basement in Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizzeria.
     It was taken up by smirking QAnon advocates, who latched onto the issue as a meta joke and way to pretend they were committed to an unimpeachable cause. And then, now, by Republican lawmakers because, as one academic put it, it's "the worst thing you can say about somebody."
     Who buys this? A surprising number of people: nearly a quarter of all Republicans and 15 percent of Americans generally told pollsters last year that they agree with the delusional notion that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.”
      Of course this has roots older than 2016. The whole kidnapping children trope is just the old blood libel retooled for the 21st century, with Democrats and liberals standing in for Jews, and child sex abuse an update for their draining the blood of their young victims to make Passover wine.
      Jackson will probably be confirmed because Democrats have the numbers, barely. But the future is laid out before us, clear: fact-free, performative delusion with no guard rails, no boundaries, no shame, no consequences. Anyone listening to these hearings for any period of time has to come away with the growing understanding that there is no hard bottom here anymore. Only the thinnest fraying strand of tradition stands between us and a true plunge into even more unimaginable depths. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

How to honor the COVID dead?

Stephen Blackwelder, conductor of the DePaul Community Chorus. Also onstage is the       
                    Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, which plays with the chorus.

     Should we honor the COVID dead?
     The current tally for the United States is 972,000 and climbing by 1,200 a day. At this rate, we’ll hit 1 million Americans dead of COVID-19 sometime in mid-April.
     Do we memorialize the fallen? And if so, how?
     Uncomfortable questions. Americans are used to solemnizing those who die in wars. They have their own day. (Sigh. It’s Memorial Day.) And while some Americans visit graves, in general the holiday is marked with ball games, blowout sales and potato salad.
     Some countries have national moments of silence. I’ve been in Israel during their Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, and at the appointed moment people stop driving and stand outside their cars, heads bowed, for a two-minute moment of silence.
     Silence is not a very American concept. We’re more into physical monuments. My hometown had a statue to a Union soldier on a plinth in its downtown triangle, a silent sentinel that I never associated with anyone dying until now.
     The World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a sprawl of low walls and stumpy columns and burbling pools that I would be hard-pressed to envision in my mind’s eye, and I was there. More a fancy marble skatepark than a memorial.
     The gold standard for war memorials is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a black granite gash in the earth with the names of the 58,000 American military who died in that brutal, grinding war.
     Should we try to do something similar for the COVID million, victims of another conflict that divided our country? Hard to imagine. Maybe there is an artist or architect who can put the plague years into meaningful shape and mold public perceptions as Maya Lin did.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Flashback 1987: Stress Test - One man's fitness odyssey

     The 35th anniversary of my joining the staff of the Sun-Times is Wednesday. I browsed my 1987 clips, looking for something to share in celebration, and was struck by a few things. First, I forgot how uncomfortable I was with the whole asking-people-stuff aspect of the job. The stories are peppered with quotes from college pals, plus my future wife and her friends. I obviously turned to them to get their opinions. Both oblivious AND lazy. In my defense, before the internet, tapping random strangers on diverse subjects wasn't quite so easy. Still, I was lucky not to be fired.
     Second, and this came as a real surprise, is how personal some of the pieces were. I had no trouble writing about my first date, my childhood memories, or this story, about measuring my heart and body. The usual way to do it would be to observe another person going through this process. The future columnist way—and I am obligated to point out, the easier way—was to simply do it myself.
     Notice the voice of this: confident, slightly humorous, exactly as I would sound now. So either points for consistency, or demerits for failure to change. One difference is that I never say how much I weighed, my attempt to draw the veil and give myself a bit of privacy. 

     I asked my girlfriend if she thought I was fat.
     "No, I don't think you're fat," she said. "A little extra, but you're not fat. You're not skinny, but I don't like skinny men."
     I asked my mother if she thought I was fat.
     "No, I don't think you look fat," she said. "You are very well shaped."
     I asked Dr. George Lesmes of Northeastern Illinois University's Human Performance Laboratory if he thought I was fat.
     He said nothing, but arranged for me to take a series of fitness evaluation tests that would answer the question, not with opinions, but with cold, unlying numbers.
     "The thing that is important for people who are looking to change their lifestyles is feedback," Lesmes said. "There's no better feedback than numbers. If I can say to you in May your oxygen capacity is 3, and show in July it's up to 3 1/2, that shows progress and is good for motivation."
     The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that individuals over 35 take a fitness evaluation test, not only to gauge any improvement that might come from an exercise and diet regimen, but to make sure they don't have any cardiac problems that might be aggravated by strenuous exercise.
     Before the test, a lab assistant went over a lengthy form that stated, in essence, that I realized I might drop dead at any time during testing and, should that happen, there would be no hard feelings between us. I signed, changed into sweats, and soon found myself sitting on an examination table.
     The first test, a stretching test, was simple. Sitting with my legs on the table, I stretched forward and, arms straining, reached as far as I could past my toes. Piece of cake. I scored a 12 and, not knowing that meant I had the flexibility of uncooked spaghetti, felt quite good about it.
     Next, electrodes—plastic discs with small metal nubs in the middle—were attached to my chest. Hairy men, such as myself, might be a bit surprised to realize that the spots where the electrodes are to be attached must first be shaved. I certainly was surprised, if not horrified. I picked forlornly at the clumps of hair as they fell over the table.
     "Do you want me to save it?" the lab assistant asked. She told me that Evanston firemen, who take the test each year, say it grows back and, at worst, itches for a while. I comforted myself with the thought that if burly firemen allow themselves to go through this, so could I.
     She handed me what looked like a sock made out of netting and told me to slip it on to hold the wires in place. I took the sock and examined it dubiously.
     "This fit people much, much larger than you," she said and, after a bit of struggle, I slipped the netting over my torso.
     Electrodes now held in place by the netting sock, I shuffled over to a treadmill, dragging an electrocardiogram machine behind me.
     Running on the treadmill is the part where, if you're going to have a heart attack, you do. I don't know why, but I had pictured a leisurely jog, trotting along to the bips and bleeps of heart machines.
     What I got was a mad, exhausting dash. Every three minutes they increased the speed and the angle of the treadmill. After seven minutes or so my personality shrank away and I was reduced to an unthinking bundle of flailing muscles and gasping lungs, staggering instinctively forward as the white coat on my right took my pulse, the white coat on my left jacked up the treadmill, the third white coat watched the monitor and the fourth coat, a man—the same man who told me not to lean so heavily on the railings— added insult to injury by jamming a nose clip over my nose and having me breathe through what looked like a hair dryer hose.
    The purpose of the test is to put as much strain as possible on the heart, to see how it reacts. Later, I learned my heart redlined at 188 beats per minute. My first question, after I had given up, been helped off the treadmill and lay in a panting, sweating heap on an examination table, was: If people are in bad shape, why put them through this? Isn't having a heart attack on the treadmill under close scrutiny just as bad as having a heart attack running around a track somewhere?
     "Sure, but running real hard on the treadmill, we'll be able to monitor you with the best equipment possible," Lesmes said. "We'll also be able to identify at what point in your exercise problems occur. Then we can sit down with you and make sure we design an exercise program that will benefit you without putting you at risk, or getting to that point where problems occur."
     Lesmes went on to explain that, for instance, if the EKG showed that my heart started to do the tango at 160 beats per minute, they would design an exercise program where I would be able to approach my limit without overstraining my heart.
     The body fat analysis started simply enough. I sat next to a machine called a spirometer and expelled as much air as I could into a tube. My efforts were displayed by a large, Plexiglas cylinder and recorded on a cylindrical graph. Urged on by the cheerleading of the lab assistant, it was rather fun, like a game one might find at a state fair.
     The purpose of this test was to find out how much air was in my lungs so that in the next test, the hydrostatic weighing, the reading would not be thrown off by excess air.
     Hydrostatic weighing was not so much physically taxing as it is psychologically icky. I had to climb into a square metal tank filled with warm water, and sit on a harnesslike thing attached to a scale. Once on the harness I had to dip my head below the water, blow all the air out of my lungs, and wait until the assistant took a reading.
     While I was showering and getting back into my street clothes, the data was compiled into a small booklet, which we then reviewed. The good news was that my heart was "strong," which meant that it was quick to recover its "resting" rate after exercise and did not change rates in rapid jumps, but gradually.
     The news quickly got worse. My oxygen consumption was average, flexibility fair, lung flexibility good. The real knife-twister was body fat: 23 percent. According to their table titled "Normal Values of Percentage Body Fat for the Average American Population," I had the body fat of a 47-year-old man, which I suppose would be fine if I were 47, and not 26.
     They calculated my ideal weight (170 pounds) and—perhaps on the assumption that I was stupid as well as fat and couldn't do the math myself, perhaps just to grind my face in it—they calculated how many pounds I would need to lose to get to that ideal weight.
      Then we then went over the mysteries of calorie intake, types of exercise and importance of warm-ups.
     "We don't want to just tell you you're fat," said Diane Reynolds, a graduate assistant. "We want to work with you to reach a goal."
     My goal at that point was lunch, and, after going on a tour of the gym that people who pay $65 for the test are free to use, I conducted a test of my own, which involved measuring my response to a big bowl of teriyaki chicken. I passed.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 7, 1987

Monday, March 21, 2022

Friendship in the plague years

    COVID doesn’t just kill people — 1,200 Americans a day, quite a lot really — but it kills friendships, too. Or at least makes them even harder to navigate.
     Especially that middle zone of business associations — those quasi-friends whom you become closer to than merely doing your job requires. People you like, when you run into them. But not anybody you’d hang out with in a pandemic.
     I liked Ken Price, the director of public relations at the Palmer House. We had things in common. We both thought that being in the newspaper was really important. We both liked eating lunch at the Palmer House, though he’d nibble something dietetic while ordering plate after plate of whatever was new and fattening on the menu and jamming the plates in front of me. He’d send me off with gift brownies — invented at the Palmer House! — and, leaving the hotel, I’d hand them to the first homeless person I passed on State Street.
     Ken was such as booster of the hotel that he was baffled, almost hurt when I declined a pitch. Three years ago we had lunch, not in the restaurant, but in the gorgeous lobby, next to a scaffold where work was going on restoring the ceiling. I talked with a restorer, admired the work. But somehow ... the topic just didn’t ... gel. Maybe next time.
     That happens. Uncle Ken — I called him “Uncle Ken” — was still interesting and flamboyant, with his elaborate eyeglasses and his beloved dogs. And warm. He always asked about Edie and the boys. He was one of the few to whom, when COVID struck, I sent an inquisitive email now and then, asking how he was. Rattling the doorknob. He never replied. Which bugged me. I took his silence personally: Of course not. The Palmer House is shut down. No need for publicity. No need to talk to me.
     In this business, you don’t want to be so cynical to assume people interact with you only because they want something. I know a popular chef who once confessed that she worried people were her friends only for the free food. I felt sorry for her but also understood. I have old friends who only contact me when they have new books to promote. I try not to think about about them in between, try to tell myself that friends are like comets, close for a time, then suddenly a dot dwindling against the black cosmos. You can’t go chasing after them. They’ll be back.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Ken Price: "Last of the great publicists"

Ken Price

     There is the Palmer House, and then there are all the other hotels in Chicago, and while I could rhapsodize the gorgeous lobby, the history, the location, the truth is, the most important factor was that the Palmer House had Ken Price representing it, while all the other hotels had ... well, I couldn't tell you anything about them. Ken Price alone approached me about stories at the Palmer House far more than all the other hotels in the city, combined. They don't make publicists like that anymore. I'll miss him. 

     Ken Price didn’t need a family; he had a hotel.
     “His work was his life. His work was his family,” said his niece Julie Stevens. “He loved what he did.”
     The 800-person staff at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, where he was director of public relations for 38 years, reacted to news of his death from cancer Wednesday the way any family member would: with sadness and tears, shed by everyone from bellmen to telephone operators to Dean Lane, the hotel’s general manager.
     “We’re emotionally devastated,” Lane said. “Ken treated everybody with so much dignity and respect. From bartenders to room attendants, we’re all crying. He meant so much to many people. It’s been incredibly devastating.”
     “Whether someone was a doorman or a housekeeper or a senior vice president, he was interested in everybody and treated everybody the same,” Stevens said.
     Mr. Price, 82, was tall — about 6-feet-2 — and elegantly turned out: beautiful suits and neckties, shoes shined, pocket square folded. And large designer eyeglasses that somehow seemed part of his persona.
     “No one other than him could get away with wearing them,” Stevens said. “They stopped making this frame long ago. He had them specially made, found someone to do it,”
     “He would wear his ascots and he would wear his Hollywood glasses,” said Shelley MacArthur, an entertainer who sang at the Palmer House Empire Room, which staged nightclub shows until 1976 — comedian Phyllis Diller put on the final performance — and then started functioning as a regular, albeit splendid, hotel ballroom.
     “Mister Kelly’s, all those great clubs, the Empire Room was one of the last survivors of that,” MacArthur said. “When they changed the room, that was one of Ken’s very sad moments.”
     He did have his times of darkness. Mr. Price would deeply grieve, for months, after the death of one of his beloved dogs — Kugel, Fotchie, Sidney. The world was not going in a direction of which he approved.

To continue reading, click here

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Wilmette Notes: The Entertaining Nature of People

     When I go to estate sales, I invariably come away empty-handed, with only melancholy thoughts on the futility of acquisition and the sorrow of life. North Shore Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey, unsurprisingly, finds a whole lot more, including a word I had never heard before. Her Saturday report:

By Caren Jeskey
Was Liebe sei
Dichter! was Liebe sei, mir nicht verhehle!
Liebe ist das Atemholen der Seele.
Dichter! was ein Kuß sei, du mir verkünde!
Je kürzer er ist, um so größer die Sünde!

What is Love?
Poet, what is love? Will you not tell me!
Love is when the soul takes a breath. 
Poet, what is a kiss? Do tell me, please!
The shorter it is, the greater the sin!
         — Charlotte von Hagn

     Franz Liszt is considered the world’s first rock star. He was 6’2” with long blonde locks and more than a hair of talent. Women flocked to the stage after his concerts, picked up spent cigar butts and inserted them into their cleavages. I was not expecting that. 
      I had no idea, when I asked about an image of German comedienne Charlotte von Hagn at an estate sale recently, that I was set to learn about great dramas of the 19th century. I was on my way out of the sale after helping coordinate donations to Humanity Relief. Other than the Japanese screen I’d already picked out and loaded into my car, I was not really drawn to anything else at the sale in Riverwoods, though the bright and sunny home with leopard print carpet was filled with gorgeous treasures. I noticed that a gentleman from Knee Deep Vintage was cleaning up, so there may be some cool finds on 18th Street.
     Ms. von Hagn caught my eye. She was framed in a simple, velvet lined gold painted 14x12 inch frame, set back an inch or two from the glass. Her right eye revealed exotropia, giving the impression that she was seeking something better elsewhere. Her calm countenance, small smile and bemused eyes were pleasurable to behold.
     What really got me was that her dark, ringlet-curled hair was adorned with real gemstones—well, more likely replicas but still—and her velvet and fur trimmed dress similarly bedecked. She sat on a sturdy wooden throne-like chair with brass screws and decorous bulbs indicating high class. That settled it. She was coming home with me.
     I put her in the car and was excited to have a new friend from history to hang on my wall. I’d given her name a quick Google search before I decided to bring her home (to be sure she wasn't the wife of a German oligarch), and learned that she was a witty actress who was born and died in Munich in the 1800s. She lived a good long life and died four weeks before her 82nd birthday in 1891. Her father was a businessman, and her brother an accomplished artist.
     Apparently, Liszt’s popularity gained him the disdain of the likes of Nietzsche, who gave the composer the nickname "Liszt, or the art of running after women." Ms. von Hagn (who was only married for three years of her life) was one of Lizst’s lovers. It’s said that she composed the poem "What Is Love" on the corner of a paper fan, and offered it to him after one of his shows.
     In my quest to learn more about this interesting woman, I found that in addition to the philosophizing he is well known for, Nietzsche tried his hand at composing music as well. He wrote a piece that Wagner’s wife played at a concert, and for some reason (maybe it was bad? Maybe Wagner had a case of jealousy?) Wagner apparently left the show and literally rolled on the floor laughing. After that “Nietzsche later parted ways with Wagner, even writing an entire essay–Nietzsche contra Wagner –about why he had decided to metaphorically stop returning his once-friend and idol’s calls."
     I like to sit around and wax poetic, myself. Here on my comfy velvet couch in a quiet and safe suburb, I have room to think, to write, to create, to grow. These days I find it unwise to more than dabble in the news. Yes, the world is crumbling in many ways. As spring approaches, my aim is to find fun things to talk about and I am sure that much of it will come in the form of art. I won't let myself ponder a day where Chicago is no longer safe and important landmarks like The Art Institute might be carelessly bombed like a children's library in Chernihiv. My nightmares belie this choice, for it's impossible (and unwise) to tune it all out. But that's a small price to pay.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Let’s fight for freedom right here

     Fight for freedom in Ukraine?
     Why not fight for freedom right here?
     Let’s review, shall we?
     It’s mid-March, 2022. Our nation is united in spirit against Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin because ... why, exactly? Because he invaded democratic Ukraine, and is not only killing civilians and destroying cities, but also committing these atrocities to take away their liberty.
     Is that it? There’s no freedom of speech in Russia. We saw independent media outlets closed down at the start of the war. Peaceful protesters in Moscow hustled away by nightmare phalanxes of black-clad police. The elections keeping Putin in power are a sham. Opponents standing up to him politically can find themselves in prison, or drinking tea laced with polonium.
     Americans don’t like that. Readers write, demanding a no-fly zone, basically a declaration of war by happenstance. We might as well just cut to the chase and go to war, which some readers also support.
     Leading to today’s question.
     Why are we eager to defend freedom in Ukraine but not at home? Why cheer on the Ukrainians as they die in the name of democracy, applaud their refusal to submit, their courage, while rolling like puppies — many of us, anyway — at the feet of Donald Trump, a weak-tea, wannabe version of Putin? Someone who has either repeatedly said or tried to do exactly what Putin does?
     Sure, it might be a tentative foray, like suggesting the Federal Communications Commission sanction “Saturday Night Live” for making fun of him, or encouraging his followers to shout down entirely true reports of his countless lies with chants of “Fake News.” But the theory is the same.
     At this point, certain readers send their thumbs flying to write in some version of: “Aiyee, you’re obsessed! What’s with the Trump fixation? Why are you talking about him? A distant memory of something that might have happened once in a country somewhere, perhaps our own. Move on!”

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Flashback 2012: Palmer House guests to act like dogs at tea party

Kitty at the Empire Room, 2012
(Photo for the Sun-Times)

     Over the weekend I was writing an actual letter to a dear friend—been a long time since I've done THAT—and mentioned the tea parties for dogs that the Palmer House held 10 years ago. It struck me that I've never posted the column I wrote about one, an oversight I leap to correct.

      What’s it like to be famous? Well, you walk out of an elevator at the Palmer House Hilton, into the splendid, Wedgewood-ceilinged lobby, and every face swivels in your direction. People light up, just light up, as you pass, big smiles breaking out, expectant nods, murmurs of appreciation. Feeling the attention upon you, you float on a cloud of benevolent interest, through the gilded lobby, down the stairs and out onto Wabash Avenue, where it doesn’t end. Attractive women pause to make conversation. The patrons inside Miller’s Pub see you and tap on the window, waving and smiling then, unable to stop themselves, they leave their drinks and rush out into the street to marvel that you are actually there. It’s very nice.
     Not that I’m famous, of course. People don’t know who I am and wouldn’t care if they did. But there’s something about walking a dog through a downtown hotel lobby — particularly when it’s a button-cute little dog like mine — that provokes a reaction that I imagine is very close to celebrity.
     Not every hotel is dog-friendly, but the Palmer House is. That’s why Kitty — that’s our dog’s name, it’s a long story — and I were there, to experience the hotel’s canine-coddling qualities, which include a big fluffy dog bed in a corner of your room, plus special Palmer House dog tags, custom baked biscuits and, best of all, the right to tromp through the lobby with your dog whenever you please. All they ask is that you not let your dog tear the place up, and kennel her if you leave her in the room so she doesn’t, you know, attack the chambermaid.
     Regular readers will remember that last year I attended the Palmer House’s Doggie Tea Party, without Kitty — I had to be somewhere that evening and couldn’t bring her downtown. It was a surreal scene — dogs in gold crowns gobbling down canine sushi set before them on a low, damask-covered table by white-gloved waiters, society ladies of indeterminate age and unimaginable wealth shrieking greetings at each other, planting air kisses, while immaculately dressed men who all seemed to be wedding planners or party consultants pressed one palm to their cheeks, grasped their elbows with the other, then sighed and commiserated about how difficult it is to find a really good dog chiropractor.
Kitty in the Empire Room
(Photo for the Sun-Times)
     Frankly, I wasn’t sure how well Kitty would fit in with that crowd — she isn’t a pure breed, after all, and buys her kibble at PetSmart as opposed to, I don’t know, having it shipped in from Fauchon in Paris. Or maybe she’d love it. She’s a dog. She tends to love everything. Maybe I’m the one who didn’t fit in. If walking a dog through the Palmer House lobby felt like being famous, trying to talk to my fellow dog tea partiers was one of the more anonymous things I’ve ever done — some guests seemed as if not only had they never read my newspaper but they had never read any newspaper. Conversations tended to be brief.
     Of course, last year’s tea party was an invitation-only affair, culled from the upper crust of the haut monde. This year’s, which takes place Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at the Palmer House’s Empire Room, 17 E. Monroe, is open to the public, for the first time. The event costs $30, all of which goes to benefit the Anti-Cruelty Society. Your dog not only gets a multi-course meal, but also you are plied with champagne, if you are so inclined, and a professional photographer will take your picture in the ornate setting, a keepsake to suggest to others that you lead a grander, more luxurious life than you actually do.
     I’ve been pondering whether to bite the bullet and take Kitty this year. She would have fun, but then she can have fun with a chewed-up tennis ball in my front yard. The Palmer House people of course would be happy, but my job isn’t to provide another supernumerary for their soirees. And me? I’d have to schlep her downtown. And while I do shudder recalling the sinking, What-Am-I-Doing-Here? feeling from last year’s party, that might be ameliorated by the admission of the general public, those non-botoxed, non-pickled in Chanel No. 5, salt-of-the-earth regular folks whose dogs do not have purses that match their own, yet still feel able to give $30 to a good cause in order to watch dogs with names like “Butch” and “Chief” caper under the crystal chandeliers in the Empire Room for 90 minutes.
     In fact, that might make all the difference — there were moments approaching near chaos last year, a woofing whir of dogs and waiters and matrons and gentlemen in $900 blazers. And that was before the public was admitted. Think of the effect on all those Margaret Dumont’s society parties once the doors fly open and the Marx Brothers burst in. Only this time they’ll have dogs in tow and be served champagne. Frankly, I think it will be something to experience. I should go. It’s a strange job, but somebody has to do it.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 3, 2012

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Tanking tanks sign of Russian rot

     Tanks are not exactly fuel-efficient. The Russian T-72 manages about 0.8 miles per gallon, though of course being Europeans, at least in theory, the Russians measure it in kilometers per liter, which works out to 0.38 km/lt.
     Significant because, without fuel, a tank is just a cannon with aspirations. And even with fuel, they’re often merely big rolling funeral pyres.
     War offers a chaos of detail. As we sit and watch, we choose which story lines to absorb, which to ignore. Focusing on what feels good: the heroism of the Ukrainian resistance, the courage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the unexpected severity of sanctions imposed by governments and businesses. When McDonald’s steps into the fray, you know something unusual is happening.
     Or, we focus on what we feel obligated, as human beings, to consider: the suffering of the Ukrainian people. The hardships facing millions of refugees. The risk to ourselves in this delicate geopolitical moment, with Russia begging China for arms, and European leaders traveling to embattled Kyiv.
     Rather than symbols of strength, all those tanks are an argument for how weak and disorganized the Russians have been. They can barely invade Ukraine, never mind face NATO and the United States. Russia went into this folly without a plan and, apparently, without adequate supplies, not only of fuel, but food, water and ammunition. Some tanks didn’t have to be destroyed; they were merely abandoned.
     When the first images of burning Russian tanks started flitting around Twitter, as well as Ukrainian farmers towing tanks with their tractors, I wondered how the supporting infantry accompanying the tanks let the Ukrainians get close enough to destroy them.
     Now it turns out that the tanks often had no supportive infantry. Nor can they operate off-road because of the season Russian chose for the invasion: too much mud.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Flashback 2001: Hot dogs with ketchup, mustard and wisdom

     Today is what would have been Harry Heftman's 113th birthday. Longtime readers will remember that he owned a hot dog stand at the corner of Randolph and Franklin that I liked to visit. Eventually, I started to write about the diminutive owner. Harry passed away in 2013, at the age of 103. But I still think about him sometimes, particularly when I walk by the little park where Harry's Hot Dogs used to be. I thought I would share this, at the risk of re-igniting the stupid ketchup controversy. Not that it ever goes away.

     Harry serves me hot dogs but will not let me pay. He stands in front of the condiments, his head just visible above the counter. I hold out several bills, folded in my hand, and shake them vigorously, as if to catch his attention. But he ignores me.
     "Take the money Harry," I plead, then turn, imploringly, to Jeannie at the cash register. I try to give the cash to her; she ignores me too.
     Since 1956, Harry Heftman has run Harry's Hot Dogs, under mustard-yellow awnings in the tiny Showmen's League of America building at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. Harry is, maybe, 5 feet tall. He is, maybe, 90 pounds. Glasses. White hair. He is 92 years old.
     For a wild moment, I consider tossing the bunched up money at Harry, but I end up pocketing it with a sigh, as I always do.
     Harry puts mustard and ketchup on my hot dog--that's how I like it, and unlike many, he puts on no airs about the ketchup. He is a friendly man, and acceptance radiates off him like a glow.
     "That's what life is all about," he says. "Be friendly."
     I take my hot dog, resting on a sheet of waxy paper in its little red plastic basket, and my styrofoam cup of hot black coffee, and go sit in a booth.
     I have never done this before--usually I eat the dog standing up at the counter then rush away. But I want to look around the place, to look at Harry and calm my jangled nerves. The last time I saw him was Sept. 11—I was hurrying to work, he was standing out front. I paused to shake hands—we always shake hands. "Hell of a day," I said somberly and he agreed. I've missed him, missed his friendly pat on the back, and if not for my reluctance to cadge another frank, I'd have been back long ago.
     I dig in. A juicy, hot, Vienna wiener. Soft, steamed bun with poppy seeds. After a minute, Harry slides into the booth across from me. This is pleasant, sitting here, I tell Harry. I should do this more often.
     "A nice opportunity to relax," he says, his voice low and raspy. "Start the day right. It's important to start out with a good breakfast that gives you a lift--a bowl of cereal."
     And not a hot dog? I ask, surprised.
     "A hot dog too," he says. "What's important is to sit and relax."
     He hurries away. Customers. Harry is a man in motion. I can't help but think of all the other people, his age or younger, sitting in the day rooms of nursing homes, griping. Not Harry. He is hustling back and forth with a metal bowl of crisp fresh lettuce in his hands.
     I look around the shop. This is the sort of place that people have in mind when they curse fast food chains. The beauty of the green neon signs, "Drink Coca Cola," in both windows, contrasted with, in orange neon, "HOT CORNED BEEF" facing Randolph Street, and "FOUNTAIN SERVICE" facing Franklin. The faux wood paneling. The plastic flowers. Blue laminate booths, six four-tops and three two-tops. A pair of charming signs encourage culinary daring: "Try our fish sandwich!" suggests one. "Try our shrimp in a basket!" suggests another. Cook Chester Green, 72, in a poufy chef's hat, like a cook in a comic.
     Harry returns, and we continue talking about friendliness. I ask Harry if he ever met anyone he didn't like.
     "No," he says, with a shake of the head. "If I don't like a person, I start talking to him, and he walks out happy, smiling. That's what this business is right here. A lawyer came in the other day, and by the time he walks out, he was my best friend."
     A lot of people walk out of Harry's smiling.
     "He's the type of character that makes the city a wonderful place to be," said Circuit Court Judge James Henry, a regular. "He's priceless."
     Harry leans forward, his voice hushed, about to impart a secret.
     "The economy is not good," he reveals. "I really hope it changes. I'm lucky to have a good location."
     Harry points out the latest decoration—a pair of Boeing posters, one for a 747, one for the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet.
     "My business is very improving because of airplanes," he says. "Boeing, they all come in here--very nice--gave me beautiful pictures."
     Harry lives in Skokie. He arrives at work five days a week at 6 a.m. He stays until the shop closes at 5 p.m. "My son drives me," he says. "He comes in especially for me."
     Harry tells me about a grandson at Harvard, then asks, "You have a nice family? Wait, I'll show you a picture." He runs to get a photo of himself and his wife of 60 years, Perle. And one of his parents, Rose and Herman. He is proud of his three children and five grandchildren.
     "I wish your children to follow my children. That's a very good wish. A good family gives you energy, to work for," he says, emphasizing his words with a light tap of the fist on the table.
     Then he is off again, hustling about his day, and so am I, refreshed and renewed, not so much by the hot dog--which in truth goes down a little uneasily first thing in the morning--as by the hot dog vendor. Be friendly.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 28, 2001

Monday, March 14, 2022

Doing time’s dirty work

     Time will send a henchman to your home someday to tear through your most cherished possessions and scatter them forever, and there was a certain irony that last month time’s designated agent would be me, a nostalgic man inclined to keep everything.
     Time will cure you of that tendency.
     I arrived at my parents’ townhome in Boulder, Colorado, then proceeded to my father’s studio and went to work.
     Pausing, yes, one last time to regard the tableau: delicate paintings, watercolors, on styrene foam core boards, framed on the walls and set out on a pair of handmade wooden easels, built by a neighbor, that reached almost to the ceiling.
     The two big drafting tables, with the Winsor & Newton watercolors — cobalt blue, burnt sienna, alizaran crimson — some still in their beige boxes, the jar jammed with well-worn brushes. I ran my thumb across the bristles of a wide sable brush. It tossed off a puff of dust.
     Time to move my parents to a nursing home — my mother’s term, though I gently correct her, with all the brightness I can muster. “A dynamic senior lifestyle community, Ma!” I say. In Buffalo Grove, 17 minutes from our house.    
     The Scandinavian design hutch that sat in our dining room when I was growing up in Berea, Ohio, and had been, for the past 34 years in a corner of my father’s studio. I started there with the books, kept behind glass doors where the china nobody wants once had been.
     I always thought we’d keep the dessert china: Royal Doulton with delicate flowers. But my wife made a face when I held up a cup to her, inquiringly. We have our own nice china our boys don’t want. No need for another set.
     I began pulling the books out —”Patterns in Nature” by Peter S. Stevens, “Fearful Symmetry” by Stewart and Golunitsky — piling them on the floor. My father had been a nuclear physicist at NASA for 30 years, then retired in 1987 to paint watercolors: ocean waves and canyon walls and that damn vase he loved so much.

To continue reading, click here.