Friday, September 30, 2022

One dozen destinations #5: Old Faithful


     I'm on vacation. To keep you entertained, or at least occupied, I'm sending you to various garden spots visited by myself and my boys in my unpublished and no doubt unpublishable 2009 memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     “Well that was an experience,” Kent said, as we reached the van. No one replied. 
      Yellowstone must have a doctor somewhere. I checked the map to find the medical office — marked by a Swiss cross — and while I was at it, double-checked the trailhead we had parked at. I had picked the wrong parking lot. The trailhead we had wanted was … 13 miles away. 
      Our visit to the Yellowstone clinic is a brief lesson in why the nation’s medical system costs so much. I figured something had bitten Ross and his eye was swollen shut in reaction to it. Give him a Benadryl and wait. That seemed a reasonable assessment of the situation. But a parent has fears — you might say that fear and parenthood are twins. “Becoming a parent,” I used to say, when Ross was a baby, “is the sudden realization that your whole world can choke to death on a penny.” 
      As soon as I considered skipping the doctor — avoid the paperwork, the cost and the hassle — the phrase, “If only he had seen a doctor immediately, the eye could have been saved,” flashed in my mind like a neon sign switching on. And once a phrase like that forms, deliberation is over and your decision has been made. 
      Ross sat in the waiting room of the small clinic, quietly reading a book with his one good eye. My heart swelled with love to see that. I went over the paperwork with the nurse, who assured me, incorrectly, that my insurance would cover this. 
     A doctor examined Ross — looks like a buffalo mite bite, he said. Give him a Benadryl and it should go away in a few days. That’ll be $267. 
     Ross’s swollen eye in one sense came as a relief. There was no way we were hiking up the Hell River Canyon with him like that. Or that’s at least what we told ourselves. We might have felt that even if his eye was fine, but either way, it wasn’t a topic of discussion. The thing to do was to proceed to Grand Teton National Park — practically next door. I phoned Edie, she got on line and found a reasonable motel — the Virginian.
     We were in the parking lot of the clinic, about to leave, when I realized there was something I had to do. I asked the boys if they wanted to go with me — they did not. So while they slumped in the car, I padded back to the geyser. It was now or never, and I couldn’t face living the rest of my life sheepishly explaining to people that, why yes, I had been to Yellowstone, but no, I had never seen Old Faithful erupt, not between my backcountry campsite fiasco and the buffalo mite incident. 
     I sat on a metal bench for about 20 minutes, waiting, eavesdropping on a black clad Goth gal — maybe 17 — complaining bitterly to her parents. About everything. At least my boys aren’t like that. Yet. 
     Eventually Old Faithful went from a smoking plume to a sputtering fountain that gushed, oh, 50 feet into the air against a cloudy, strangely winterish sky. It sounded like a leaky radiator. The geyser didn’t jet so much as vomit into the air, a wet heaving splat. Having viewed the profoundly underwhelming sight, I returned to the car, and we all bade a heartfelt farewell to Yellowstone National Park.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

One dozen destinations #4: Stampede Park


     I'm on vacation. In the meantime, I've taking you to a dozen spots you might not have visited yourself. This is Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming, as described in my unpublished and no doubt unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     After a Mexican dinner we went to Stampede Park for the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo, a yearly event that just happened to be taking place while we were there, an actual competition as opposed to the weekly western show held for tourists year round. We waited in line for our tickets, at window under a big sign warning foreign visitors to stay in the grandstand so as not to spread foot and mouth disease. 
     The rodeo was a charming mix of sincere patriotism and blatant commercial hoopla married to a display of roping and riding skills. We gathered on metal risers in front of an oval open-air arena filled with soft dirt, ringed with a blue fencing festooned with signs for the “U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.” and “Denny’s Guns and Maps.” The rodeo began with an enormous American flag walked into the arena, held at the edges by 18 members of the Cody Volunteer Fire Department wearing red shirts and gaiters. No flagpole outside of North Korea could fly so large a flag, so it was hoisted up the aerial ladder of their fire truck. 
     They were followed by U.S. Marines on horseback—four marines, in their dress blues, with white belts and white peaked caps, perched incongruously on four tan palomino horses. One marine held an American flag, another, a corps flag. It seemed a vision straight out of the Spanish-American War. Meanwhile, cowgirls on horses rode around them, their big sheer flags honoring Budweiser and Dodge trucks. The sun, slowly setting over the distant mountain range, poking in and out of big, billowing clouds, bathing us in a warm orange glow. 
     It was a low-key, desultory evening — minutes of waiting punctuated by seconds of bull riding and steer wrestling, team roping and barrel racing — the crowd kept entertained with stale jokes from the rodeo clowns, who wore wireless microphones. 
     “What do you call a pretty girl in Punkitown, South Carolina?” asked clown Frankie Smith, pausing before the punchline: “Lost!” 
     “You can tell he’s from Texas,” said Smith, introducing a contestant. “But that’s about all you can tell him.” 
    During the various events, the announcer would not only narrate the action, but also provide encouragement to the participants — “Git ‘er done!” he’d say, when a steer proved extra elusive to a cowboy trying to rope him. 
     It was all so colorful and rustic and cowboylike, I had a video camera in one hand and my little Nikon Coolpix in the other. I’m not sure why I took video. I was thinking of my father’s Super 8 movies of bullfights in Spain in the 1950s, and fancied it would be something we’d want to look at later. Though even as I was documenting the proceedings, it struck me that, by doing so, I wasn’t quite giving the action my full attention now.
     I also wanted a good photo of a cowboy on a bucking bronco to post on my Facebook page, and took a lot of photos toward that end. Facebook was like a new moon in the sky, exerting its own gentle tidal pull. Now I had this unseen audience of readers following our trip, watching. Since they were paying attention to me, suddenly I was paying attention to them. It was hard to freeze an action shot from so far away with the little camera, and I spent too much time trying to. Eventually I got one. The boys sat there, tired, munching on peanuts and just watching the action, which had a certain comforting repetition; like baseball, it did not demand continual or careful scrutiny. Cowboy after cowboy roped steers and rode broncos. They were awarded points on some system we didn’t bother even trying to understand, and since I wasn’t rooting for anybody we could just observe. A man came out with two enormous hump-backed white Brahman bulls and performed, standing on their backs and swinging pots of fire on cords. Clowns in yellow and red shirts would come rushing in, after the rider fell, and harass the wild horse until the fallen cowboy could scramble to his feet and lope off in the soft dirt of the arena. Young women on horseback raced each other around barrels — I guess that part did draw special interest; nothing catches a man’s attention like a bunch of racing cowgirls in snug Levi’s, cowboy hats and plaid shirts. It’s a good look. 
     Easy to see how people love this — before each ride, there was one completely still moment, when all the various rodeo handlers and hangers on, each in his cowboy hat, would be leaning over the blue metal rail, watching the cowboy brace himself on the back of his challenge — he would get settled on the sidestepping, shuddering animal, establish his grip. All would freeze for that single, delicious instant, a Western tableau, then the cowboy in the chute would give the signal, the gate would fly open and the beast would come charging out. The sun set, the rodeo ended, and, just as the audience was leaving, it started to rain. We waited for the cars to untangle themselves and leave the congested parking lot in Cody, Wyoming, the wipers slowly clicking back and forth, the rain coming down. The boys were nonplussed by the rodeo — it wasn’t something to be discussed, just another thing their father made them do. Back at the motel, they flipped on the TV and watched “Ghostbusters.”



Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Chicago gay bars get their due

     Surprise! While I am now on vacation, I wasn't last Friday when I wrote this. It ran in the paper Monday, and I figure I can expend the minimal energy required to share it with you here, for those unfortunates who read my blog but do not also subscribe to the Chicago Sun-Times, a lapse I really ought to lecture you about someday, after the conclusion of my "One dozen destinations" series, which returns tomorrow.

     The library in my home office is arranged according to subject, with books about birds here, presidents there. There are 28 books by and about Dante, which might seem like a lot, until you realize there are ... counting ... 41 by and about James Thurber.
     Some could go several places. “Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall,” by Stcq, no period Sukie de la Croix could be on the shelves of books about Chicago. But I’ve segregated it amongst books on gay history, alongside George Chauncey’s excellent “Gay New York.”
St Sukie de la Croix
     A publicist pitched de la Croix, ballyhooing his new encyclopedia of Chicago gay bars, and I couldn’t resist the chance to talk with a man the Sun-Times once dubbed “the gay Studs Terkel.”
     I know my readership well enough to understand that if I introduce a man named St Sukie de la Croix, many will spend the entire column wondering, “What’s with the name?” and miss anything else he might say. So let’s get that out of the way. Besides, I was curious myself.
     “It’s now my legal name,” he began, in a British accent. “I occasionally wrote things for mainstream papers, so when I started writing for gay papers in England, I wanted to separate the writing, straight and gay. I picked a silly name. Then I seemed to be getting more work under the silly name, and when I came to this country, everyone called me ‘Sukie.’”
     I assumed that part of his name was sort of an obscene wink.
     “No, no, no, not at all,” he said. “Once, I was married with children, I went to a fortune teller on a pier in a seaside resort. She said, ‘You’re married and you have two children and you’re bent. One day you will become a writer, first meeting a man and will leave your wife.’ Her name was Madame Sukie.”


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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

One dozen destinations #3: The Badlands


     I'm on vacation. To occupy those poor souls who simply must read something of mine, and to fulfill the every goddamn day promise, sort of, while I'm taking time off, EGD will feature scenes plucked from my unpublished and probably unpublishable 2009 memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     The farms and ranchland — gentle green rolling hills and fields — changed dramatically upon entering the park, into a beige vista of wind-sculpted rock formations, a slash in the earth stretching out in front of us. 
     We were beat from two full days of driving, and the boys were keen to get to our cabin at the Cedar Pass Lodge and relax. But I impulsively pulled off at a trailhead so we could take a closer look at these Badlands. I had to. 
     “Just a quick peek,” I told the boys. 
     I parked the car at the Door Trail lot. There was a boardwalk off to the left—composite recycled planks, wending through a gap in the dun mountainside. We followed it, the wind rippling our clothes, ruffling the tall grass on either side. 
     Kent pointed out a sign that read, “BEWARE—Rattlesnakes!” 
     “We have to take these signs seriously,” I said, half to myself, half to the boys. “But I suppose we don’t have to worry on the boardwalk.” 
     Turning a corner, and were shocked to find ourselves in a surreal moonscape. 
     We followed the boardwalk to where it abruptly ends, with a sign, another one of those stern warnings the National Park Service is so good at crafting, telling you, in essence, that if you proceed beyond this point you take your life in your hands, that people regularly get lost and die and you had better be properly equipped with the following listed items. Ross started to climb up the nearest hillside in his chunky black plastic Crocs clogs, but I called him back. 
     The boys and I stood there, looking at each other for a moment in the snapping wind, then turned and bolted for the car. I popped the rear hatch, and we began madly pulling on thick rag wool socks and hiking boots and tossing water bottles and Clif bars into a daypack as if the unearthly landscape we had just glimpsed might vanish if we weren't quick about getting back. Somehow that moment, the frenzy of preparation, leaning against the car, putting on our hiking boots, lacing and tying them as fast as our fingers could work, seemed extraordinary, almost equal to the natural glories we were hurrying to return to. Maybe because nobody complained, nobody dawdled, nobody required prodding. We ran across the boardwalk, our boots clomping, and turned the corner. The Badlands were still there. 
     Fan-tastic
     We spent an hour scrambling around the chalky soil, which had a slight crust to it, carefully climbing up the steep hillsides to stand, taking in the jagged horizon of peaks and crags all around us. The landscape was so jumbled, so pockmarked and broken, it became a kind of optical illusion, condensed, camouflaged, and it was tough sometimes to determine if a hillock was a mile away or a few feet in front of you. 
     “Art is nothing as to nature, boys,” I announced, taking photograph after photograph with the Nikon digital camera Edie had just given me that Father’s Day. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

One dozen destinations #2: Mitchell Corn Palace



     I'm on vacation. But no worries; I've planned ahead, and am leaving you with visits to a dozen disparate places, their only commonality being they're in America and I visited them and took photos. Yesterday we hit the Spam Museum and today we visit another popular tourist spot, continuing to use as a guide my unpublished and probably unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."  

     T
he Mitchell Corn Palace is not a palace made of corn — they tend to fudge on that fact, so I want to be clear, since the three of us were all deceived by the name, gulled into expecting a structure made of corncobs. 
     “Why’s it called the ‘Corn Palace?’’ Ross asked, as we sat on metal chairs, waiting for the introductory film to begin. 
     “Because it’s made of corn,” I said. He looked around the room. 
     “The walls aren’t.” 
     “Well, I hope the load-bearing walls aren’t, but outside…” 
     It isn’t much of a palace either, more of a grange hall with delusions of grandeur. Outside, an elaborate square brick building, festooned with Moorish onion domes and minarets and columns, yellow and green pennants snapping from the roof and murals installed on its façade — a new crop every year — made of 275,000 ears of dried corn. The murals are keyed to local attractions and dramatic national events such as the Bicentennial and the Moon Landing. This year’s theme was “America’s Destinations” with the Statue of Liberty and the Seattle Space Needle and Mount Rushmore dutifully highlighted. The overall effect is of a flattened Rose Bowl Parade float, in wall form and well executed in light beige to dark brown Indian corn hues. 
     The introductory movie was professional, history-based, with a subtle undertone of good old-fashioned prairie Calvinism. The Corn Palace, “a majestic, unique American folk art icon” also “lifts the mind above the humdrum duties of life” and is “a celebration of who we are and what we do and how we spend what little time we have in this world.” 
     After the movie, we were taken into an upper balcony, where we received a brief talk on the place by a young volunteer, who pointed out the corn tributes to the Native-Americans who once called this area their home, as if that changes anything, then shunted us into another enormous gift shop, even bigger than the Spam Museum’s. We gazed limply at a staggering expanse of Corn Palace crap—the place had not worked its magic on us, so the idea of memorializing our visit with a Corn Palace commemorative spoon or snow globe or shot glass repulsed us, and we bolted out of there, into a large concession area. Here Kent’s interest was piqued. He demanded a snack — maybe a hot dog? Some kettle corn? 
     “It’s 10:30 in the morning,” I said, “Why don’t I get your picture with the giant ear of corn?” Some poor schleb in a corn cob suit was posing with small children — a deal breaker for the boys. Too sophisticated and mature to associate with the giant ear of corn crowd. They turned the tables — why didn’t I pose with Mr. Corn? Yeah dad, you pose with him! I was about to call their bluff  — having explored the sub-cellars of public shame, the small potatoes stuff doesn’t embarrass me anymore — but kids were gathered around, waiting their turn, and while I could easily hug a guy in a corn suit, on a dare, I couldn’t push ahead of toddlers to do so.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

One dozen destinations #1: The Spam Museum


     My wife suggested — okay, urged — that I take a "real vacation," meaning: don't think about the column, the blog, or anything else related to work for a protracted period of time. Say two weeks. Since she is typically right about everything, I am taking her advice. But, having done this blog for nearly a decade, every goddamn day, and with a book based on it just coming out now, and wanting to honor the implicit promise of its name, I made preparations, and am leaving you with visits to a dozen disparate places, starting with the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota, plucked from my unpublished and probably at this point unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie," written a dozen years ago about a 2009 trip out West with my boys, then 12 and 13.
    Feel free to comment, though it might be awhile before I get a chance to vet and post those comments. Thank you for your patience.

     The Spam Museum is flashy, colorful, new — a gem of the museum-crafter's art — with George Segal-like white plaster figures recreating key moments in Hormel history, a faux butcher shop and lots of interactive displays that challenge visitors to fill and label Spam cans or compete as contestants on the set of a Spam TV trivia quiz show.
      We eagerly took part, testing our skill against timers and each other. The keys to a good corporate museum are honesty, humility and humor — The Three Hs — and the Spam Museum nails all three. Though “Spam" is a contraction of "Spiced Ham," I expected them to soft peddle the killing pigs part of their operation. 
     But there is no groveling to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals; the doors to the theater are designed to look like pig snouts, and a glass case displays a “hog splitter” from a 1940s killing floor, a brutal cleaver that could have been lifted from a slasher movie. The employee magazine on display is titled “Squeal.” 
     Candor is a sign of character in a company, because the weak-minded, knee-jerk approach would have been to whitewash the museum of anything but a few cartoon pigs with curlicue tails. As far as humility, well, I've never been to a corporate museum that says so many unenthusiastic things about its own product, such as “I’d rather eat Spam than bugs,” uttered by a life-size video of a fatigue-clad soldier (Spam, it seems, practically won the Second World War for the Allies. “Spam played a critical role during World War II” visitors are told). 
     Or “It’s not steak, but it’s good meat and fills you up” and, of course, the exasperated blurt of “I don't like Spam!” in the famous Monty Python sketch, with Viking chanting “Spam Spam Spam Spam” in a café offering more Spam items than even the menu at Johnny’s Spam-o-Rama. 
     The Monty Python display — they re-create the cafe set from the sketch — suffers a common corporate museum lapse, one also seen at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where exhibit design trumps the antique notion that people ought to learn things at museums. The Spam Museum shows the Monty Python sketch on a monitor, but without any background or explanation — a true oversight, given that the skit is the source of the not-insignificant Internet term for unwanted bulk commercial email. 
     Were it my museum, I'd assign a staffer to spend an hour reading over the many minutely-detailed histories of Monty Python to find little background about how the Spam sketch came to be, perhaps making the obvious connection to the early 1960s black-and-white commercial playing in the next room at the museum, whose chant of “Spam Spam Spam” is echoed by the Vikings in the Python routine. 
     “I wish it were more factual,” Kent agreed, as we wandered together. Ross has a habit of reading every word of every display in a museum, so he tends to lag behind. Every so often I would drift backward, to find him standing alone, stock still, hand on his mouth, studying a placard Kent and I had breezed past. We were nearly alone; there were hardly any other visitors. 
     After an hour crawling around the Spam museum — playing its mock TV game show, pressing the buttons, working as fast as possible at a pretend Spam canning line — we were shunted into the enormous gift shop, where we pawed over Spam sweatshirts and Spam shot glasses. Kent selected a bright yellow and blue Spam foam football. I bought four cans of Spam; two regular and two exotic flavors: garlic and “Hot & Spicy.” I figured they’d come in handy on hikes.




Saturday, September 24, 2022

Northshore Notes: Birthday

     An important theme sounded in my work at the Sun-Times is to remind the intolerant, the haters and would-be totalitarians who would impose their practices upon others, unwilling, that they are not in fact the only sort of people in the world. There are all manner of people, different than yourself, who do and believe a wide spectrum of different things. It's their world too, a lesson most of us pick up in childhood. Though, tragically, many never do. Thus I'm glad to walk the walk, and on Saturdays turn my personal blog over, not just to someone else, but to the inimitable, vibrant and energetic Caren Jeskey. Her report:


By Caren Jeskey

     This week I celebrated my 53rd birthday.
     A group of friends and family were kind enough to brave a stormy night and meet up for a celebratory dinner on Tuesday night. I chose Good To Go , a Jamaican restaurant on Howard Street, for several reasons. It's located near my folks' place and I did not want them to have to travel far. It's also not too far from friends who were coming from Chicago, Park Ridge, Vernon Hills, and the North Shore. Also, it boasts a covered rooftop. We are still COVID conscious, and Tom Skilling predicted rain. Thanks Tom. A couple of hardy storms pummeled down during the night, but we were safe.
     Watching my family and friends from high school, college, and later in life mingle was heartwarming. As a gift, I received a book created by an ex, Accra Shepp. This led to a phone chat with him later in the week — him in Queens, and me on a walkabout in Wilmette. The world became small thanks to our iPhone (me) Android (him) connection.
     A college friend who's now a high school teacher burnt out by these COVID years (and leaving her role in 9 weeks time, after decades of teaching) gave me a copy of a book about "returning home" by Toko-pa Turner "on exile and the search for belonging." I see myself as a passionate person, and often on a quest for meaning, so this book was spot on.
     Snežana Žabić also showed up. She's a writer and musician who encouraged me to pursue my musical talents, and for a short time we formed a two woman band called The Adaptations. We'd play weekly at the now-defunct Café Mestizo in Pilsen. 
Snežana had us rehearsing on a regular schedule, and was the coach I needed. I'd like to be a Renaissance Woman but often lack the drive to make it happen.
     On Snežana's blog Spurious Bastard, she notes "at my core, I'm a stranger to passion. I've seen it in others: a passion for soccer or partying, for example. I've messed around with passion myself. Passion is another word for despair. Commitment is what I know more intimately. I recognized it even as a child whenever I saw pensioners playing bocce or chess in the street. On that patch of dirt in the otherwise leafy park, heavy balls hardly moving, the players were calm and focused. On that folding table covered with a plastic tablecloth with a garish floral pattern, the only pattern the chess players saw was the checkered board and black and beige figures. That has always made sense to me."
     From her memoir Broken Records: "in 1991, Snežana Žabić lost her homeland and most of her family’s book and record collection during the Yugoslav Wars that had been sparked by Slobodan Milošević’s relentless pursuit of power. She became a teenage refugee, forced to flee Croatia and the atrocities of war that had leveled her hometown of Vukovar. She and her family remained refugees in Serbia until NATO bombed Belgrade in 1999." She landed here and now lives in Rogers Park. She’s had quite a life, and has taught me about the power of resilience.
     When we played at Cafe Mestizo, fellow musicians in the audience asked me to record my flute on their projects. I was flattered. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, and purpose. Snežana drew me out of my insecurities and stage fright and into expression. Once, I was so nervous that I did not play my flute at all during a show. I held it to my lips, afraid to blow. Even though I knew the notes, my frightened brain convinced me that if I blew, I’d fail. Afterwards, the always cool and collected Snežana simply asked "what happened?" without any judgement or shaming. She had proceeded with the show, without missing a beat. No stranger to adapting to uncertain situations.
     The owner of the group practice I work for also showed up at the party. A harm reduction therapist who's an artist also came, with a gift of a sketch he'd made of a character in a Jerry Springer show. He explained that a good friend of his loved the show, so he’d entertain himself by sketching the characters when she had it on. I appreciate that he studies humans and took it a step further, to sketch and also present as a gift. In homemade wrapping paper, I must add.
     As I watched friends and family enjoy each other’s company, I truly felt that everything was OK.
Underneath my outside face
There's a face that none can see.
A little less smiley,
A little less sure,
But a whole lot more like me
        — Shel Silverstein

Friday, September 23, 2022

Can I chop down this oak tree?

An oak on the banks of the branch of the Chicago River in Northbrook.

     Northbrook boasts a park in the heart of its downtown, with a ballfield and a playground, a gazebo and a river — the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River. A person could, theoretically, with a shallow-draft kayak and about 12 hours effort, paddle to Marina Towers.
     Too much work for me, more given to meandering through the park, my wife’s arm tucked snugly in mine. All is right in the world as we stroll under the towering old oaks, past younger trees planted to comfort future generations.
     But what if all weren’t right? Let’s say I take offense at one of those saplings. Perhaps I decide there are too many oaks already. Perhaps I bear some grudge against the person honored on the bronze plaque. Perhaps I am worried an inept village child could be tempted to climb this tree, because of a low branch, say, and, in doing so might fall and be injured. Even killed. The reason doesn’t matter.
     So I take it upon myself to go to the park with a chainsaw and cut down the offending tree.
     How do you think passersby would react? Would they say, “There’s old Steinberg, responsible citizen, exercising his constitutional right to live in a community free from the menace of perilous trees”? Or would they call the police, who’d haul me away for destroying public property?
     The second scenario is a sure bet. And I think we can all agree: They would be right. The park is for everybody, not to be defaced by irked individuals following the random dictates of their disordered minds.
     Given that, why do we tolerate people plucking books out of public libraries? Unlike trees, which really do occasionally cause injuries to careless climbers, no child has ever been hurt by a book. The damage imagined by alarmed parents is purely notional and, when you think about it — someone should — quite ludicrous.

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Tossing the Selectric II


     I didn't keep many of the books lining my office off the third floor newsroom at 30 North Racine when I closed it up two weeks ago. But I held onto a few. Some I intended to read, like "Freak Kingdom," by Timothy Denevi, a 2018 look at Hunter S. Thompson's personal war against American fascism — which I did indeed begin a few days back, and am finding a truly excellent book that is sadly topical.
     Others were so odd I just couldn't part with them, like "Direct Line Distances" by Gary L. Patrick and Marilyn J. Modlin, which is exactly that: a book of tables of the mileage between various American cities. The plan is to ask my grandchildren, when they finally arrive and are sufficiently grown to consider the question, how such distances were determined before Mr. Google instantly served up the answer, and then display the book, to their amazement (okay, to their complete indifference). I just knew that if I got rid of it I could never find it again. (True. Plugging the title into Amazon and eBay comes up with nothing. Maybe I'm the only person to save a copy).
     The rest of the books I piled along the metal shelf off the newsroom where the few staffers who still had books were piling theirs, in advance of our move to a more stripped down, spartan newsroom at the Old Post Office, to be taken away by notional colleagues who have need for them. Most likely they'll be trashed quietly or, one hopes, donated. There's a Goodwill next door.
     Otherwise I mustered an uncharacteristic lack of sentiment toward the move. Maybe closing down my parents' house in Boulder last February helped me see such physical burdens with a clear eye. So much crap. Why hold onto it? For what? So even award plaques went into the trash. (For the lesser awards, that is; a few I kept, to be disposed of in some future culling). 
     I impressed myself by actually throwing away my IBM Selectric II with a minimum of interior drama. Yes, it was the machine of my youthful dreams — well, in blue, because it was prettier and rhymed, "a baby blue Selectric II." And it had that magical correcting button on the lower right corner of the keyboard, which would put the machine into the correcting mode, backing up the ball so your mistyped letter could be lifted off the page by white correcting tape, a marvel greeted by wide-eyed gratitude by anybody who'd spent years daubing Wite-Out on the page — too heavy a hand and it would leave a little puddle that the proper letter would be almost embossed in, drawing attention to your blunder instead of concealing it. Or by tucking a little white correcting square in and striking the key, which often took more dexterity than I could muster. Those little squares had a tendency to fall into the type basket and had to be fished out among the keys. 
     This Selectric was beige, and had been expropriated from my in-laws' basement. I didn't write columns on it—when I joined the paper we had those chunky ATEX terminals with their green cathode ray screens. But it was handy for typing envelopes and letters, before it broke some time in the early 21st century and was never repaired, though I remember once inquiring of the executive editor whether the paper would foot the bill for fixing the machine at one of the increasingly rare typewriter repair shops. 
     Transporting the heavy device home, to sit in my basement for another few years, seemed not just sentimental, but unhinged, maybe insane. I set it on my desk chair, gave it one long, lingering look.
     Before I pitched the machine, I did remove the typeball, the spherical aluminum element embossed with the letters of the alphabet. That's what made the Selectric so radical when it was introduced in 1961. All typewriters had a carriage that conveyed the paper, one letter at a time, past a fixed basket of type bars — hitting a bunch of keys all together so they jammed was a childish joy, for some reason.
     It was far more efficient for the type, spangled like stars in the celestial sphere around this cool metal golf ball, to move across the page instead. The element seemed the seat of wonder, and that I detached and kept, as a far more portable token. Kept for now anyway. I reserve the right to throw that away too at some future moment of clarity.
     Then I seized the typewriter with both hands—the thing is heavy—carried it over to one of the large trash cans in the kitchen and tipped it in. It landed with a loud and quite satisfying crash.



Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Waiting out the storm in the UP


     Last weekend I drove about 700 miles. On Thursday, 350 miles, almost due north, through Wisconsin to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Then 350 miles back on Sunday. Quite a long way, really.
     Why? The 60 hours in between. The company: I drove with my brother, reunited with old friends there. We’ve been meeting in the UP for more than a decade. Nature: the deep woods, the ever-changing, frigid lake, the wild turkeys. The food: tomahawk chops from Peoria Packing. Beef jerky picked up at Held’s in Slinger, Wis.
     You’ll note that we brought our food. UP cuisine — pastiescq and doughnuts — not so hot. Though the town where we stay, Ontonagon, now has a juice bar, The Squeeze on Main, and I grabbed a salad there for lunch Friday. Not bad, if a little short on lettuce, more like a bowl of chicken, cheese and sliced apples with some greens mixed in. A Yooper salad. At least there were no Beer Nuts in it.
     A six-hour-plus drive, but that was also part of the fun. Usually the car ride is seen as a necessary evil to get from Point A to Point B. Wasted time. But on this trip, the 700 miles was an unfolding diorama of beauty, the rolling vistas of farmland, shrouded in mist in the morning, glorious in the midday sun. Undulating fields of corn, yellow-tasseled and ready to harvest. Alfalfa in big round bales, each weighing a ton, either left to dry or because the farmers haven’t had time to collect them yet. The raw forest pushed back from the highway — deep green pines and white-trunked birches.
     A lot of industry up there too. Even the town names suggest products: Winnebago, Land O’Lakes, Oshkosh. The vast Harley Davidson plant. Just passing through, I don’t see how you can feel anything but hopeful about America, despite our deepening problems. When didn’t we have problems?
     Sure, there were scatterings of Trump flags, and “Let’s Go Brandon” signs. At least they’re concise. “I’m a dupe in thrall to a liar, bully, fraud and traitor,” is a lot to fit on a sign. I did sincerely marvel at yard signs plugging Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, which made me want to stop and ring the doorbell and earnestly inquire. “Really? Ron Johnson? The guy who tried to shrug off his sedition because it only lasted ‘a couple of seconds’? The man’s an idiot.”

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Tuesday, September 20, 2022

'Waken to a hummingbird'

 

     "Yet by some object ev'ry brain is stirr'd," Alexander Pope writes in Book 4 of the Dunciad. "The dull may waken to a humming-bird."
     While I'm not quite ready to lump myself in with "the d
ull," it's true that I wasn't thinking of anything in particular when my attention was snagged by this hummingbird, spied through our bay window as it dined on the nectar within the clematis in full glory on our front porch. 
     I happened to have my phone in my hand, and immediately brought it up for a shot. Hummingbirds do not stay in one place for long, and I got off five images before it helicoptered out of sight. I'd never come close to photographing one before. 
      Only one of the shots is halfway decent, and I immediately wished I had simply stared at her (it seems to be a female) in appreciative wonder, admiring a bird that can fly backwards and even upside down, instead of trying to document our encounter. Though having a shareable picture did give me a reason to read up on hummingbirds, which are exclusive to the New World — the Oxford English Dictionary makes that almost sound like a flaw.
     "They are peculiar to America," it sniffs, "ranging from Alaska to Patagonia." 
     Performing my due diligence, I was charmed to learn that hummingbirds build their nests out of spiderwebs, decorated with lichen. As to which of the 320 or so species of hummingbird this might be, the choice is pretty much limited to one: the ruby-throated hummingbird, the only hummingbird found in the Midwest, though solitary strays of other species do get blown off course and wind up here. 
    Unlike this grey gal (lack of color indicates she's a female) most male hummingbirds are bright — Kenn Kaufman called them "flying jewels" in his Birds of North America. Their bills are often shaped to match the particular flowers they feed upon. They are also aggressive — a hummingbird will attack a hawk. Although the Encyclopedia Britannica, when making this startling claim, does not address the obvious follow-up question: "And how well does that work?"

Monday, September 19, 2022

Her Majesty



     Queen Elizabeth II is being buried today. As I sit down to write this, at 6 a.m., the wall-to-wall TV news broadcast has already begun. I won't be watching, having long ago opted out of the frustration of viewing live coverage of ongoing events, with their endless static shots and so-called experts tap-dancing and time-filling. Besides, I've got this to write.
     Instead I pulled out a delicate blue tissue airletter that my grandmother's Aunt Fannie sent to her in 1953, that I've kept among my stamp collection since I was a child for the regal red coronation logo. To try to grasp the span of life that Queen Elizabeth's reign encompassed, when she was coronated, in June, 1953, my father was a 20-year-old radio operator aboard a ship visiting Britain. Now he is a 90-year-old man in a nursing home, er, dynamic senior lifestyle community.
     "I am getting more and more excited at the thought of seeing your son," Fannie Ross, of 133 Spencer Place, Leeds, wrote to my grandmother Frances, whom she called Esther, her Hebrew name, before sharing news of the coronation, which took place a year after Elizabeth had become queen:
     "I enjoyed the coronation very much. I stayed all day at my friends house to watch the television + everything went without a hitch — the streets in Leeds were deserted. I think almost everyone must have been looking or listening in."
     So nothing much really changed in 70 years — most people camped in front of the television, watching a ceremony for royalty. You can decide if that is comforting or disturbing.
     World War II was only eight years in the past, and the subject of shortages is next.
     "You ask me what you can send me with your son when he comes — we can get most things, but we don't get best salmon or tins of fruit salad so those things would be welcome if it is convenient."
     My father used to tell a story of that visit — that his great Aunt Fannie produced a small bottle of milk, with cream on the top, having heard of his affection for it, and watched him avidly until he drank it all.
     I think I will resist the urge to add to the bad journalism hobby-horsing on the queen's passing. I noticed several articles referring to the "uncertain future" that Britain and her commonwealth now face after her death, as if those nations without a departed queen have our destiny pretty well preordained. We all have an uncertain future, all the time. Yes, sometimes it seems otherwise, and we feel we have a clear understanding of what will transpire, forgetting that, almost inevitably, we don't.
     The only thing worse than that is all this thumb-twiddling over why people are so curious about the passing of a fabulously wealthy royal who had reigned if not ruled over nearly a third of the world's population for their entire lives. What could the interest possibly be?
     Driving back from Michigan's Upper Peninsula yesterday, my brother and I listened to the Beatles "Abbey Road" album and, as always, I was surprised by the little 23-second ditty at the end, "Her Majesty."
     "Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl," Paul McCartney sings. "But she doesn't have a lot to say."
     That sums it up nicely, doesn't it? 

Sunday, September 18, 2022

"Wish you were here."



     "What will you do if it rains?" my wife asked, sensibility itself.
     I thought. It had rained before. But in the 10 years I've been going to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a group of convivial men, the forecast had never been quite as damp as this weekend was supposed to be.
     "I suppose we'll do pretty much what we always do ," I replied. "Eat, drink, talk, take saunas, jump in the lake."
     Which was true, except that last part. Thursday night, I got ankle deep in a very frigid Lake Superior after luxuriating in the revivifying heat of our host's wood-fueled sweat lodge and some primal element stopped me right there. Others braved it to their knees, but I made an executive decision. "I'm stopping here," I announced to no one.
     And it didn't rain continually. Friday morning there were a few hours open for my brother and me to stride purposefully three miles up the road and three miles back, admiring wild turkeys and snakes, spiders and red apples. Saturday we went up and down the beach.
     True, there were no sunsets to speak of. A gradual darkening Friday, and a slight pinkening of the horizon Saturday night. The bonfire on the beach took a more liberal and persistent application of accelerant than is typically necessary. But it did get going, with the aid of logs that were appropriated from the dry sauna supply, and we all sat in chairs and shouted conversation above the roar of the surf crashing a dozen feet away.
     No conclusions, no epiphanies. I sat drained of thought staring in unthinking bovine contentment at the rime of lichen on a fir tree, or the glorious white bark of the birch trees everywhere.  There were some dramatic clouds that blew through Saturday night that were a wonder to behold.
    Though I can't say that world didn't intrude at some points. I did tend to occasionally consult my phone, out of habit more than anything else, like a tic of the work world that hadn't entirely quieted. Now and then I would check the chatter. Once there was a photo of camels along a shoreline and a selfie from a friend in Carthage, where he is detained because of political unrest. "Wish you were here," he wrote. I turned to display the blue line of the lake and the overhanging trees, held the camera before my face and exhaled a fine Cuban cloud into the lens, a sort of smokey kiss. "Ditto," I typed, sent the picture bouncing into the electronic aether, then returned to contemplation. 



Saturday, September 17, 2022

Northshore Notes: Rainy day outing

Drawing by Don Colley

     I never tell Northshore bureau chief Caren Jeskey what to write about. It would be as wrongheaded as shouting orders at a cloud or a butterfly. Though I must admit, when I saw where she was going with this I thought, "Oh no..." But then she pulled it off, as she always does. Enjoy.

By Caren Jeskey 

The sky clears, illuminating the earth for a second,
And then frightens the sleeping birds
With a great clap of thunder, and like bitter tears
The drops of rain become noisily mixed with those already fallen.
Nature, frightened, hides under the rustling leaves,
The flowers close under this brutal dew
And the soaked earth boasts of bearing this squall alone.
The birds, flapping their wings, lift themselves up
And murmur softly, “The Storm.”    
                                                   —Anais Nin
     The rain always comes at unfortunate times. Such as last Sunday, as I tried to figure out what to wear to be outdoors with an afternoon storm quickly approaching on the radar. Rain boots, waterproof jacket, plastic bag tucked in my purse for the book I was going to buy, and funnily enough an umbrella. Not the best tool in the windy city.
     Not only was I primed to brave the weather, I was even willing to risk my life on the terrifying death trap of I-94.
     I do not take expressways, as a general rule of thumb. I’m a backroads kind of lady. In the past 16 months since I’ve moved back to Chicago I’ve said no to anything faster than Lake Shore Drive— which, hell-OH folks, has a speed limit of 40.
     Part of that is due to the "Fast & Furious" scene I naively drove straight into, late May of last year, on my final leg from Texas back home to Chicago. Racing isn’t the word for what I saw. Garish plastic sports bikes popping wheelies, dented up cars weaving in and out of the lanes. No speed limits, Autobahn style. I ducked off as soon as I dared, Indy wannabes coming up so quickly on my right I barely had a chance. I wish they’d stick to the Nascar course next July for that.
     Although it did not seem certain on the harrowing drive with dim pavement lines buried under roll waves, I made it to Plymouth Court. Not many things can get me out of the house these days, but the Printers Row Lit Fest was one of them.
     As a teen in the 80s, the then-called Printers Row Book Fair was a must attend event each year. Eye candy covers of new books, the promise of that perfect find or ten to bring home and get buried in, and the company of fellow book nerds made it the place to be if you were into that kind of thing.
     Decades later I met an author and vendor from New York at the fair, and the following year he was my boyfriend and roommate in Chicago. We’d cozy up with tea on long afternoons, noses buried in crisp new copies of whatever we were reading, inhaling the fresh paper smell. (Actually, that part of our short lived relationship never happened, but that’s what I was aiming for).
     Once parked last Sunday, I found my friend William. We made it into our seats moments before the big event at 2. The crowd went wild as none other than Neil Steinberg and Shermann Dilla Thomas took the stage.
     The room was packed, and abuzz. TikTok historian Dilla and Neil did not miss a beat. They jumped right into impressing each other and their audience with little known facts about Chi town told deftly. They riffed off of each other like old pals, though this was their first meeting. Dilla offered that he finds himself agreeing with 83% of what he’s read by Neil. They both laughed.
     In addition to his TikTok channel, Dilla operates Chicago Mahogany Tours. “According to the Washington Post ‘While national news outlets seem fixated on the city’s gun violence and crime, Shermann ‘Dilla’ Thomas has built an impressive audience by highlighting his hometown’s best qualities.”
     The Dilla Steinberg duo was such a delight that we would gladly listen to the two of them regale us with swapped stories again. After the show one fan implored Dilla to start a podcast with Neil.
     Neil shared stories from his new book with the succinct title Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago.
     When Neil and Dilla wrapped up, my friend and I made a plan. We’d get a quick bite, then head to the tent where Neil was selling and signing copies. We finished our burgers and dashed back to the Fest, only to see that it was no more. They must have closed up early due to the rain. We missed our big shot.
     To keep the book mojo going we ducked into the local bookstore where William and I spent an hour sharing what shiny new books jumped out of the shelves at us— The Daughter of Doctor Moreau — along with books we’d read and wanted to recommend — The Stranger. I asked the poised proprietor Ellen Sandmeyer about Neil’s book and she said they were hoping to get it in the next day.
     I left empty handed but full hearted and will pick up the book soon. We are all in for a fun ride.
Over spring mountains
A star ends the paragraph
Of a thunderstorm.
                —Richard Wright

Friday, September 16, 2022

Flashback 1986: COCAINE BABIES — Drug's tiniest victims start out hooked

Photo for the Sun-Times by Al Podgorski Jr. 

    I was talking to a young reporter about how to get hired at a big newspaper — a triple rarity, for a) the desire, b) the conversation and c) the act being discussed — and mentioned the benefit of writing something outstanding, from his own initiative. I cited this story, which is what finally got me hired up by the Sun-Times, only five months later, after nearly three years of freelancing. 
     As I described it to him, he said, somewhat dismissively, "It sounds like a 1990s type of story." 
     "Actually, mid-1980s," I said, sheepishly. 
     Nobody assigned it. I read a quote in a Newsweek story  from Ira Chasnoff, at Northwestern's perinatal dependency clinic, and thought, "That's right here!" One benefit of not having a job is that nobody expected the story, and I could work on it as long as I liked. I worked on it a lot. I remember standing at the clinic, on the phone, negotiating with my addict to make her clinic appointment. She wanted me to pay the cab, which is not a no-brainer when you are an unemployed 25-year-old writing a story on spec.
     What strikes me now is that is the story 2780 words long, or almost the length of four columns. If the world were coming to an end, the main story on the meteor bearing down on us wouldn't be 2780 words long. But I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan today, staring at the flat line of Lake Superior, so this will have to do. I hope it holds your attention.

     Last May 9, Delores Dorsett got together with friends to freebase cocaine. For about an hour they passed around a small glass pipe until they had smoked 2 grams of cocaine, for which they had paid $110.
     The evening was typical for the 30-year-old Dorsett, who had been doing drugs since she was 16. In fact, the only difference that night was that Delores Dorsett was six months pregnant with her seventh child, and after inhaling the cocaine, she began experiencing cramps and abdominal pain.
     So, on May 11 — Mother's Day — Dorsett went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Prentice Center for Women, where she had been participating in a program for chemically dependent mothers. At first, her doctor planned to administer Ritodrine, a drug that stops contractions and delays labor. But Dorsett was too far along by the time she arrived at the hospital. Nothing could be done to prevent the delivery. At 7:34 a.m. the next day she gave birth to her fourth daughter, Leanna. The newborn was Dorsett's second child affected by cocaine use, and one of the 100 or so "cocaine babies" delivered in the past year at Northwestern Memorial.
     Leanna suffered from several problems frequently found in cocaine babies. Premature and underweight (1 pound, 13 ounces at birth), she had a clubfoot, deformed genitalia (doctors had to analyze her chromosomes to determine she was female) and other problems that required a colostomy, which was performed the day after her birth. At the same time, the traces of cocaine that had been detected in her blood at birth began to dissipate, and several days later Leanna went into cocaine withdrawal.
     And Leanna was lucky. Because Delores Dorsett had been in Northwestern's in-patient treatment program, at least 21 days of her pregnancy were drug free. Doctors were ready to respond to Leanna's difficult birth, and afterward her development could be monitored by the handful of doctors in Chicago intimately familiar with cocaine's ravaging effects on newborns.
     Most cocaine babies are born to women who have received no drug treatment, or even regular prenatal care, according to Chicago drug professionals.
     "We get more and more calls," said Dr. Ira Chasnoff, director of Northwestern's Perinatal Center for Chemical Dependence, "from different hospitals saying, `We've just had a mother give birth, and the baby's terrible, and we found out the mother was on cocaine. What do we do?' "
     The Northwestern program was begun 10 years ago to treat female heroin addicts and their babies. Cocaine babies were unheard of then. But within the past three years there has been a radical shift in the patterns of drug use in the streets. Today 80 percent of the women in Northwestern's perinatal program are primarily cocaine addicts.
     There are no statistics available to determine how many cocaine babies are born in Chicago. One doctor at Northwestern estimated that hospital sees half of the cocaine babies born in the city, while another suggested it sees only 2 percent.
     Whatever the number of cocaine births, there are indications they are rising. Not only do programs such as Northwestern's universally report huge increases in the number of cocaine addicts seen, but figures associated with cocaine — emergency room visits and deaths attributed to cocaine, for example — have shot up.
     The closest to a hard statistic on general incidence of cocaine births is kept by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. By law, cocaine babies have to be reported to the DCFS, which is supposed to investigate the family situations. Reports given to DCFS are lumped under the agency's "substance misuse" category, along with those of parents who give drugs to their children. Substance misuse reports for Illinois jumped 27 percent to 423 in fiscal 1986, a rise DCFS attributed primarily to an increase in reports of drug-affected newborns. And hospitals only report children who have cocaine in their bloodstreams when born, so not all babies influenced by cocaine are reported.
     While Northwestern's program is the only one in the Chicago area devoted to addicted mothers and their infants, cocaine babies also are born to women in various drug and perinatal programs scattered around the city.
     Substance Abuse Services Inc., a network of drug-treatment facilities, has approximately 100 women who are pregnant or new mothers or who have recently miscarried participating in its programs. Michael Reese Hospital places cocaine-addicted pregnant women into its high risk obstetrics-gynecology program, where the emphasis is on their pregnancy, not their drug addiction. For each pregnant woman receiving treatment, many more women — some estimates say as many as 100 others — never seek help for their cocaine addiction, or special treatment for their cocaine-affected babies. "We don't see a lot of these people because they die before they get to us, and that includes children too," said the director of a large drug treatment program.
     Many factors conspire to keep pregnant women from seeking treatment for cocaine abuse: cocaine's effect on developing fetuses is not widely known; addiction to the drug is very difficult to treat, almost requiring hospitalization for any hope of success; women face particular hurdles, and undergo personality changes. Finally, not enough treatment programs in the city are geared toward either cocaine addicts in general or pregnant women in particular.
     Research on cocaine babies is itself in its infancy. The first medical paper on the subject, Chasnoff's "Cocaine Use in Pregnancy," was published in the New England Journal of Medicine only a year ago. While some basic questions — the effect of dosage and frequency of use on the fetus, the exact risk of deformity, the length of time cocaine stays in the baby's system — have not been answered, doctors are piecing together a picture of cocaine's impact on fetuses and infants.
     The stage of pregnancy when cocaine is taken is extremely important. The first and third trimesters are the most dangerous times to use cocaine, experts say.
     In the first trimester of pregnancy, cocaine can affect the development of the fetus. Cocaine constricts the blood vessels in the placenta, cutting the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the fetus, risking stillbirth and retarded development. The fetus's blood vessels also contract, causing deformities, particularly of the heart, lungs, digestive system and genital tracts. Increased blood pressure also means that fetuses are susceptible to suffering strokes in the womb.
     Cocaine use in the third trimester of pregnancy can affect the delivery. Doctors have found that cocaine addicts have a very high rate of abruptio placenta — premature separation of the placenta from the wall of the uterus — that can cause both mother and child to bleed to death. As in Leanna's case, premature labor frequently is a problem and once born, cocaine babies have slowed developmental responses and a higher rate of sudden infant death syndrome.
     Cocaine does not "cause" these problems in the same way that thalidomide caused defects in children born to pregnant women who took the sedative in the early 1960s. Rather, cocaine greatly increases the odds that these defects will occur. Doctors haven't seen enough cocaine babies to develop statistics, but a current estimate is that women who use cocaine have at least five times as many defective babies as non-user mothers. And, just as using cocaine one time may cause death in an adult, so a single cocaine use can affect an infant's development or cause miscarriage. Doctors say it is not uncommon for a woman to go into labor and deliver immediately after using cocaine.
     One problem found in most cocaine babies is withdrawal — a nervous, jumpy, tremulous state that affects 90 percent of cocaine babies. While withdrawal is physically temporary, it can cause long-term developmental problems. Babies in withdrawal are so irritable that a touch can set off spasms and crying. Their mothers tend to hold and nurture them less because of this, and lack of maternal contact hampers normal psychological development of the child. Thus an important part of treating mothers of cocaine babies is to teach them parenting skills and ways to calm the baby, such as swaddling.
     Ignorance of the risks does not fully explain why cocaine-addicted women don't seek help. Cocaine — once considered a relatively benign drug of the rich — recently has been revealed as one of the most addictive drugs known, a "cunning and powerful, insane disease," according to one therapist.
     Not only is it addictive, but addiction to cocaine is very difficult to conquer — one survey showed that 90 percent of cocaine addicts who become cocaine-free through treatment become addicts again.
     It is not uncommon for women in cocaine treatment programs to deny the medical facts when presented to them. A woman who had been through inpatient treatment programs at Northwestern and Weiss Memorial Hospital described her addiction this way:
     "I just wanted to do it, so I did it. Cocaine is a selfish drug. You might have your last $30, and you might have bills to pay, but you go out and spend it on cocaine. You really don't care. I knew I was pregnant. I knew the consequences. I'm a nurse. I work in a hospital. When you have that urge you really don't care. You do it."
     Drug counselors often compare giving up cocaine to the death of a loved one. Cocaine addicts trying to give up the drug go through all of the stages normally associated with grief — denial, bargaining, anger. Often that anger is directed toward the new baby, who is blamed for the trial of treatment and the inevitable depression that follows giving up cocaine.
     Not only do women fail to seek help because of the powerful grip of the drug, but the lifestyle that the drug almost always demands makes breaking addiction very difficult. People who use drugs gravitate together, addicts surrounding themselves with other addicts, who encourage their habits.
     Most women in Northwestern's program are on public aid, and to pay for their addiction they sometimes turn to prostitution, theft and drug dealing, pursuits that in themselves are not easily abandoned once begun.
     And finally, for women who manage to overcome all these obstacles to treatment, there is one more: treatment is not always easy to find. Pregnant women are in a double bind — they must find a program that accepts both their pregnancy and their cocaine addiction. This is not a simple task.
     For example, the Garfield Women's Center is a state-run drug treatment facility with a program that can serve 90 women at a time. It accepts pregnant women — seven babies were born to patients last year. But, the methadone maintenance program does not accept cocaine addicts.
     "Heroin was the primary drug of choice and now it is cocaine," said Jackie Freeney, director at Garfield. Freeney said that despite the shift, Garfield is not allowed to take in cocaine addicts because of funding restrictions. According to Freeney, a handful of cocaine addicts — no more than three at a time — are slipped into the program.
     "We get calls every day (from women addicted to cocaine) — there's no place to refer these women and the places that do take them have extensive waiting lists," said Freeney. "There need to be more programs designed to meet just the needs of the cocaine abuser."
     On the other hand, the Gateway Foundation, one of the largest drug treatment programs in the state, accepts cocaine addicts. Since 1983, the number of cocaine addicts treated at Gateway has quadrupled.
     But it doesn't accept pregnant women, an "unfortunate reality," according to a Gateway director, who said that of the 2,000 patients treated there last year, only one was pregnant. The foundation simply cannot meet the medical needs of a pregnant addict.
     It is a cliche that public programs are inadequate to handle the problems presented to them. But that doesn't diminish the fact that, due to the overcrowding and waiting lists, people — particularly pregnant women — seek out help and are turned away.
     "The thing is being able to respond to a person when a person really wants to come in," said Chuck Corley, a counselor at Substance Abuse Services Inc. "When a person makes up their mind, you have to be ready, and if you're not ready, they slip back into drugs. In our case, what happens, the majority of the time, is by the time we get a pregnant woman (into our program), she's going into second or third trimester, and we'd like to get them in much earlier."
     Private groups certainly have sprung up to meet the need. Due to demand, Weiss Memorial Hospital has had to triple the size of Lifeline — its rehabilitation program for cocaine addicts — since it began in January, 1985 Lifeline now sees more than 500 patients a year. Many private hospitals have substance abuse programs, along with facilities to handle pregnant women.
     For example, Northwestern Memorial has a well-rounded program for pregnant cocaine addicts, with an inpatient program to help keep the mother off drugs, expert physicians in the field and clinics that track the child's development. Northwestern has no waiting list and is ready to accept new patients —at $600 a day, or $13,000 for the 21-day inpatient program. The assessment interview alone costs $60.
     While medical insurance or public aid can cover most or all of the expenses, approximately half of the women in Chicago could not afford a private drug treatment program such as Northwestern's, either because they don't qualify for public aid and don't have insurance, or because they have insurance that doesn't cover drug treatment or that carries deductibles.
     "Previously, people who used cocaine had significantly high financial resources — if they could afford the drug, they could afford the treatment," said Dr. Richard Sherman, head of Chicago's Alcoholic Treatment Program, who cited a reduction in the cost of cocaine as a major factor contributing to the problem of treatment. "Now we're seeing people who've gotten into trouble and can't afford a hospital stay. A lot of these people who don't get into private hospital programs don't get treated. There is a real need for residential treatment programs in the city."
     Every Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., Northwestern Memorial has a clinic for cocaine babies. The waiting room is crowded with women holding infants. In one examination room Dr. Chasnoff is testing a 4-day-old infant for withdrawal — he pumps on the baby's arms and releases, and the baby cries a choppy, rasped cry, hands reaching out spasmodically, trembling.
     "Cocaine babies tend to be very jittery, especially when lying nude," Chasnoff says. "They lose their boundaries."
     In the next room, Dr. Dan Griffith, a psychologist, puts a month-old boy through a series of developmental tests.
     "OK, let's check out your reflexes, big guy," he coos, running a finger over each tiny foot. Griffith is a large man who played off-tackle at Wabash College in Indiana, and it is a little surprising to see how tenderly he handles the baby.
     "How's that grip" he asks, wrapping the baby's fist around his finger. "Oh good." He holds the baby up and tries to get him to take a step.
     "Let's try some flying," he says, holding the baby out at arm's length and sweeping him through an arc. Griffith keeps up a running conversation with the baby, supplying his own responses. "Let's see how your eyes work. They work pretty well. You're supposed to turn your head. Right."
     Griffith plants himself in a chair, holding the baby in front of him. "You're looking for me. Whoop! You found me!"
     He holds his face inches from the baby's. "Hi big guy!"
     The next patient is Leanna Dorsett, discharged from Northwestern just two weeks before. At three months of age, she weighs 5 pounds, 6 ounces — underweight for a newborn. Her eyes are milky and huge. With Leanna is her mother, Delores Dorsett, who prepared for her arrival home from the hospital the same way she prepared for her birth, by using cocaine.
     The colostomy bag is irritating Leanna's skin, and Chasnoff shows Dorsett how to apply the bag properly. Dorsett asks if her baby is still suffering from withdrawal.
     "Well, with babies this premature it's hard to tell," Chasnoff says. "She's a little shaky, but I can't tell if it's withdrawal or prematurity."
     Someone asks whether the colostomy bag is permanent, and Chasnoff says that corrective surgery will be done as soon as Leanna weighs 20 pounds.
     "Her big sister is 2 and hasn't got to 20 pounds yet," whispers psychologist Diane April, referring to Shanetta Dorsett, who was born with lung and heart defects. "So she may have to wait awhile."
     The examination ends and Dorsett dresses her daughter in a light purple jumpsuit. Chasnoff, about to walk out to the other examining room to see another baby, consults his clipboard. "I need to see her next week," he says to Delores Dorsett. "She comes to term next week." He smiles. "It's her birthday."
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct 12, 1986.

If you haven't read enough, and are curious as what happened to Leanna Dorsett, I followed up in 2000. Read it with a tissue.