Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Fighting fascism is in our bones

German American Bund leader Fritz Kuhn speaks at a meeting. New York, 1938.

     This newspaper was forged in the fight against fascism; born to serve as a soldier in the endless battle of freedom against totalitarianism.
      It’s a good story. In 1941, with war raging across Europe, the mighty Chicago Tribune was a voice for xenophobia and isolation. It was more than happy to let Hitler — whom the paper admired — keep Europe (as were, it should be remembered, the vast majority of Americans).
     So Marshall Field III begat the Chicago Sun, as a newspaper that would have President Franklin Roosevelt’s back as he tried to prepare a reluctant nation for the ordeal he could see looming ahead. The Sun rose on Dec. 4, 1941, and three days later, the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into the war.
     The bad timing — the paper lost its primary purpose 72 hours into its existence — is a reminder that newspapering was always a struggle. That is why, in late 1947, the flickering Sun joined forces with the Chicago Daily Times, which I usually identify as a scrappy, photo-packed, sports-obsessed tabloid begun in 1929. And leave it at that.
     But there was more to the paper. I did not realize until this week that the Times also went after fascism in a big way. Not until my attention was drawn to “Nazi Town, USA.” The latest installment of the PBS American Experience series dropped this week (You can watch free online). It looks at the German American Bund in the 1930s, a nationalist organization ready to remake the country.
     “The Bund’s vision was an America ruled by white Christians,” historian Bradley Hart says early in the program. “And they thought that Nazism was entirely consistent with American ideals.”
      Americans who aligned with Hitler tried to build an active support network for Nazism, drawing in families with a national string of wholesome-seeming summer camps. All the while vigorously denouncing Jews. Preparing an organization of eager traitors, ready to facilitate takeover when the Germans finished with Europe and decided it was our turn to bear the yoke.
     “They were against democracy,” says historian William Hitchcock, “and thought that America would be a kind of star in a constellation of pro-Nazi governments around the world.”

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Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Cat transportation news

     We always eat well when we visit our younger son. Either because he always eats well and we get to join him doing so. Or — my suspicion — he lines high end places for us to take him to when we're in town and of course foot the bill. I suspect that's it.
     A couple weeks back, we were in Phoenix, with no other purpose than to enjoy the pleasure of his company. He suggested we grab breakfast at Essence Bakery Cafe. Very French — the scrambled eggs with dill in them. The cheese croissants had a blend of gruyere my wife still talks about with wonder. After we settled in our little table and were enjoying our coffee and a selection of pastries, a customer passed with this novel cat carrier arrangement. We struck up a brief conversation. No, the cat didn't mind being in the backpack at all — rather liked being out and about, she claimed (the woman, not the cat). As did the owner, like having her cat at hand, that is.
     I can vouch for the portability of cats. It was last August I went through O'Hare to deliver one of my son's cats to Phoenix — he missed him. The boy, that is. Missed the cat. As for the cat's feelings, well, who can tell?
     And while the cat, Casper by name, was quiet and compliant, and didn't make a peep on the nearly four-hour flight, I can't see myself getting in the habit of hauling felines around. Not just for the heck of it. Still, no criticism. Not everyone is me. It's a free country. For now. 
     The bag, by the way, is a Texsens Bubble Backpack Cat Carrier — you can pick it up on Amazon for under $40. one of many backpack cat haulers that are sold, some featuring an enormous clear setting for your cat. Though the big clear packs seemed too exposing. It seemed to threaten the mysterious dignity of a cat. They're not exhibitionists. I mean, I think they're not. It isn't as if I'm familiar with all cats. Just a few.
     I found a quite extensive review of this product by Oregon breeder Clair Chesterman on her TechnoMEOW website (and no, I didn't not make that up. She's been reviewing cat gadgets for five years now). 
     "Warning #1" she wrote. "Your cats probably will hate it." That sounds right.
     Warning #3 was regarding bothersome strangers such as myself: 
     "You will become popular with Texsens cat backpack" she wrote, noting that wearing one invites the attention of "Senior high school kids, senior citizens, off-duty cops, nurses coming home from the night shift, drunk vacationers at the beach, visiting groups on a tour… You name it."
     I guess I'm in that second category now. Sigh. Well, be who you are. There was only one thing to ask after that: the cat's name. Well, two things to ask. I then checked the spelling of the name, and a good thing I did, because I would have spelled it with an S-K... but no, she spelled it "Scootch." Cute cat.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Elon, boychik, welcome to the tribe!

Another local Jewish person contemplates Elon Musk in 2018.

     Elon, my man! Bagrisn aheym mayn bruder! Welcome home, my brother!
     Oh sorry, Getting ahead of myself. Last Monday, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, visited Auschwitz and declared himself “aspirationally Jewish.”
     As someone who is not aspirationally but actually Jewish, that is a slow pitch right down the pipe. A guy’s gotta swing.
     Judaism is a great religion. That fact often gets lost, what with all the people hating us and wanting us dead. Great food. Great traditions. Not a lot of rigid rules, except for the Orthodox.
     But is Jewishness something one “aspires” to? Does anyone need to aspire? The bar is very low. You wanna be Jewish? Be Jewish. It’s not like anybody’s going to stop you. Buy a pair of candlesticks. Say Sabbath prayers.
     You don’t even have to do that. In my book, you’re Jewish if you say you are.
     Which Musk pretty much did. Though he seems to think Judaism is something you get from close contact with others, like pink eye.
     “Two-thirds of my friends are Jewish,” Musk said. “I have twice as many Jewish friends as non-Jewish friends. I’m like, Jewish by association.”
     It doesn’t work like that. Having Christian friends doesn’t make me Christian, I hope. Rule of thumb: If you’re using your friends from a certain group as a human shield to deflect charges that you’re actually a bigot who hates that exact group, then you probably are.
     Which reminds us: Musk’s remarkable theological self-transformation doesn’t spring from nowhere. It was last November, not that long ago, particularly when discussing a faith that goes back to ancient Babylon, when Musk declared the idea of Jews — then a people quite apart from himself — pushing “hatred against whites” while welcoming “hordes of minorities” to be “the actual truth.”
     To his surprise — isn’t he supposed to be some kind of business genius? Because me, I’d have seen that coming (savviness; an alleged Jewish trait) — the X advertisers started bolting in droves. Leading to Musk’s in-the-trenches conversion.
     Supposedly. Skepticism is another Jewish quality. So let me roll my eyes and be so bold — again Jewish, though we call it chutzpah — as to point out that Musk doesn’t really want to be Jewish. Rather, he’s reading from the “Heck, I’m Jewish myself” playbook, a cliche among haters.

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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Flashback 2013: Seeking colleges, finding ourselves

At Swarthmore

     Writing a newspaper column is a responsibility I try to take seriously. But sometimes you just don't see a problem coming. After this column ran, I heard from an angry party regarding an aspect of the piece. See if you can guess what the matter was. I'll reveal it after the column.

     "We can all fit,” said the sophomore, starting our tour of Swarthmore.
     In the hall, that seemed unlikely. But all 21 prospective students and their parents trooped into the gal’s bedroom for a gander. “I’m living with my friend Sophie,” she said.
     She was indeed, the two single beds pushed together. Our guide spoke more, but in truth it was a background hum, as my eyes lingered on that double bed, a stuffed bunny peeking benignly out from under the covers.
     American society has made rapid progress extending civil rights to gays — gratifyingly quick for a culture still clinging to copper pennies. And I’ve been applauding that for 20 years. But somehow, to my surprise, defending the humanity of an oppressed group is different than taking a college tour and being confronted with a literal love nest — that Hamlet line, “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” flashed in mind. Maybe I’m just a prude. But it startled me, as did my knotted reaction. I busied myself reading the “Prenuptial agreement” posted on the wall, multi-colored pen on pink construction paper, including line items regarding grape gummies, “The Hunger Games” and hugs.
     My 17-year-old and I were at the elite school in Pennsylvania because he wants to be a neuroscientist, and he heard he’d get more lab time at a liberal arts college — direct work with professors instead of sitting at the back of a huge hall listening to grad students.    
     That notion died for us on the wooded walkways of Swarthmore somewhere between that dorm room and the library, with its big supply of comic books in the lounge, plus the school’s swimming requirement — an early 20th century anachronism that lingers at a few colleges — and the candlelight ceremony at the outdoor amphitheater.
     I kept contrasting this with the day before, our visit to Johns Hopkins, the Baltimore university famous for its medical school. We met with a neuroscience professor, and while I didn’t take notes, his comments will forever live in my memory as: Oh sure, you can go to some liberal arts school, where you’ll have “good teachers” who will instruct you on the brain. Or you can go to a top research institution like Johns Hopkins where you’ll be working side-by-side with future winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. You can spend four years reading journals like Science and Nature. Or you can do work that ends up published in Science and Nature.
     I worried: Is my boy ready for that?
     In Swarthmore’s defense, they presented as eloquent an argument for a well-rounded education as I ever expect to hear.
     “You are being prepared to be a socially and civically responsible global citizen,” said admissions staffer Ruby Bhattacharya. “Swarthmore is challenging. Swarthmore is hard. We are constantly asking students to think why they think the way they think.” To that end, the first freshman semester is pass/fail — no grades. “You start to ask yourself a very different set of questions,” said senior Nate Lo. “Why do you take a class? You look for some value beyond a number.”
     For one delicious moment, I mused if this might not be better for my kid. A less grueling path. But he shook off that idea with a shudder, like a dog after a bath. Some don’t mind being a number. Some really like numbers. Some have pi memorized to 100 digits.
     The next day, at the University of Pennsylvania, nobody mentioned swimming or candle ceremonies. We started at BIBB249 Cognitive Neuroscience — they encourage you to sit in on classes — in a big seminar hall with 100 kids. The lesson was on equilibrium potential of ions of potassium and sodium when passing through a membrane.
     “What were the quantities that go into the Nernst equation?” the professor asked.
     My heart sank. The prospect of an hour of this was dismaying to me, forget a year or 10. These waters were too deep, and I had pushed him in. My fault. I glanced over to the boy whose dreams would now drown. He was leaning forward, focusing on the professor.
     “Here’s the question,” the prof said, directing a bright ruby laser pinpoint to these words: “What happens to the net force on the K+ ion if the membrane potential moves away from -75mV in the positive direction?”
     “Any idea?” I whispered, jokingly.
     “It would move outward,” he replied.
     I sat back, startled, almost frightened. “What makes you say that?” I asked.
     “Based on my 20 minutes in class,” he replied. “Because the diffusion force will be greater than the electrical force.”
     “The net force is out,” the professor said. “I hope that is evident to everyone.”
     More evident to some than to others.
     “This is easy!” my son whispered.
     Children are enigmas that arrive as 8-pound parcels and depart, 18 years later, their mysteries often intact. I shouldn’t still be surprised at this point, but I am. Maybe he’ll figure out the neurological basis of that.
       — Originally published in the Sun-Times, January 25, 2013

     So who complained? The mother of the unnamed sophomore. She felt the privacy of her daughter had been intruded upon. Though what was really driving her displeasure was this: she didn't know, of her daughter's arrangement, or even of her inclination, until someone forwarded her the story. I did feel bad about that — I hadn't intended on outing anybody — and said I was sorry for her dismay. However. You have to be a hard ass in this job, at times, and I do remember pointing out: a) the expectations of privacy after inviting dozens of strangers into your bedroom is quite low, or should be and b) I'd think her complaint would be with her daughter, not me. I'm just the messenger, which is the role of the media. Oh, and my older son went to Pomona College and became a lawyer.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Work in progress: Jack Clark on writing in Paris

Alexander III Bridge

     There are many romantic images about writing. The hard-drinking writer — I've tried that personna, and discarded it, out of necessity. The tortured genius — I'm neither of those. And the writer in Paris — ever since Uncle Ernie scribbled his short stories about Michigan in Left Bank cafes a century ago, that myth has held firm. I've barely written a postcard from Paris, but former Chicago cabbie Jack Clark, who contributed an essay on Schuba's in June,  is there now, working. I had to ask: What's that like?

Writing in Paris

     My first story was in the Chicago Reader in 1975. It was — according to the story itself — a janitor’s-eye’s-view (please note: those words were edited into the story) of the Chagall mosaic, which had recently been unveiled in the First National Bank plaza. I’d been a janitor at the bank when the mosaic was first announced in 1972.
     Since that story, I’ve written quite a bit about my working life, about cab driving, furniture moving, and trucking. But I haven’t written much about writing itself. What would I say? You sit down and try to make sense of something or another, and when you get to the end, you go back to the front and try to make it better. Repeat this process until you’re either satisfied, you give up, or you sell the damn thing.
     When we were discussing what I might write here, Neil suggested I talk about writing in Paris, which is where I spend a good portion of my time. I can’t afford to spend my days at Hemingway’s old cafés on Boulevard du Montparnasse. Instead I’m a mile or so away, sitting on a brand new stool in the spare room of my fiancée’s apartment. For me writing here is not much different than writing in Chicago. But, I must admit, it’s been much better since the stool arrived. Sometimes the hardest part is just keeping your butt in the seat.
     I’ve written six books in the dozen years I’ve been going back and forth to Paris. Back Door to L.A. is a sequel to my novel Nobody’s Angel. They’re both told by Chicago cabbie Eddie Miles. Honest Labor is a memoir about my days as a long haul furniture mover. Nickel Dime Town features Chicago private detective Nick Acropolis. It’s the fourth book in the series. The B Side of Misty is a novel centered on a Chicago diner and the homeless man who shows up one day. Murder Reporter is a novel about a kid from a “changing” West Side neighborhood who becomes a crime reporter for the local alternative press. Paris in a Bottle started out as another Eddie Miles novel, but I couldn’t make it work. I replaced Eddie with another Chicago cabbie, Robert Rhodes. He’s in mourning for his daughter, who died of a fentanyl overdose, and his best friend, a fellow cabbie who killed himself in the wake of Uber’s destruction of the Chicago taxi business. Rhodes wants out of Chicago. He picks France, where he searches for traces of his namesake uncle who died there during World War II.
     Stop! Do not run to your favorite bookstore. Do not go to Amazon. You’ll find nothing but Back Door to L.A., which was self-published back in 2016. The other books have never seen the light of day.
     But I had some luck recently. Back in February in an Amazon Celebrity Pick post, Quentin Tarantino said that Nobody’s Angel was his favorite novel of the year. It’s my first book, self-published as Relita’s Angel in 1996. Initially, I sold it out of my taxi. I then revised it and sold it to Hard Case Crime. I got the rights back in 2021 and self published it once again. And now Hard Case Crime is going to publish a new edition next month with Tarantino’s words prominently displayed on both the front and back cover. An editor said: “What a cool thing to happen to an older book.” I couldn’t agree more. Of all the pulp novels in the world, how did Quentin Tarantino happen to walk into mine? I don’t know, but I’d sure like to thank him.
     But the real good news is that with Mr. Tarantino’s words, I found myself an agent again. Robert Diforio of the D4EO Agency is now busy trying to peddle my various books. If you’re a publisher yourself, you know what to do. The rest of you, please keep your fingers crossed. I’m hard at work on a new novel. I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time in those inspiring Parisian cafes.
     Jack Clark
     January 12, 2024

Friday, January 26, 2024

Sun might get us before atomic bombs do


Slim Pickins rides a hydrogen bomb in "Dr. Strangelove"

      What is it with scientists and clocks? Yes, determining the duration of phenomena is important to research, not to forget seemingly unconnected realms like navigation — Britain ruled the waves for centuries, thanks to John Harrison’s clock, accurate time-keeping being the key to determining longitude.
     Clocks also serve science as metaphor — start with Albert Einstein, struggling to jibe the fixed speed of light with his aborning theory of relativity, looking at the medieval clock tower in Bern and realizing that time is not fixed, but elastic. He started sending notional clocks zipping at the speed of light in thought experiments, trying to nudge we dullards into comprehension.
     The practical value of Einstein’s 1905 musings was dramatically demonstrated at the University of Chicago in 1942, when the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction was midwifed by Enrico Fermi.
     So it makes sense that another fine Hyde Park institution, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — founded in 1945 by Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and friends — would in 1947 use a clock as its logo, its hands set at seven minutes to midnight to convey the risk of nuclear Armageddon at the start of the Cold War. The editors took to moving the hands forward and back, warning the world how close to nuclear annihilation it was at the moment and — not incidentally, in my view — continuing the best marketing campaign for a publication other than Sports Illustrated featuring swimsuit models every February.
     That didn’t end so well for them — Sports Illustrated fired its entire staff Friday, effectively ceasing as a publication. But the Bulletin is going strong, and on Tuesday announced the clock would remain at 90 seconds to midnight, same as last year.
     “Ominous trends continue to point the world toward global catastrophe,” is the doozy of an opening line in the Bulletin’s announcement.
     I paid particular attention this year since the University of Chicago’s International House is hosting “a conversation on the existential crises facing our planet and and how we can turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock” on Feb. 6, featuring Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Daniel Holz, a U of C Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics professor and chair of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. They asked me to moderate the discussion.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Restaurant Life #4 — Restaurant Schønnemann

      When the routine of eating out in restaurants in Chicago gets too oppressive, I like to travel to foreign countries to eat in their restaurants, as a change of pace. While in Copenhagen last fall, we of course went to Restaurant Schønnemann, for their lunch smørrebrød, or open faced sandwiches, the Danish national dish (and if you suspect I'm digging the three Os with a slash through them in the previous, you're right. Pronounced "ihh," more less, standing alone the Ø means "island" in Danish).
Herring with elderberries.
     Founded in 1877,  
Schønnemann is one of the oldest restaurants in Copenhagen. Its waiters are brisk and efficient, obviously well-accustomed to serving blinking tourists, quickly establishing just how big of a glass of schnapps they'd like to go with their herring — and we had three types, mustard, elderberry and curry. (Of herring, that is. Only one of our party had schnapps, and it wasn't me. I enjoyed their fine Teedawn "Gentle Lager," whose label claimed, quite accurately, it is "Tasteful and Non-Alcoholic.")
     It was hard not to think that Restaurant Schønnemann is how the Berghoff might still be, had it not gone out of business in 2006 (what? You're fooled by the Faux Berghoff still in operation on Adams Street? I'd say it's a pale imitation, but can't, because I never stepped foot back in the restaurant again after they closed with great fanfare,only to open up a few months later, never admitting that the entire deception committed against their loyal customers was a base strategum to fire their union wait staff). 
    Don't trust me — I'm obviously emotional on the subject. Others have visited, and report it is ... not the same. David Anthony Witter, in his essential book, "Oldest Chicago" ends a discussion of the oldest restaurant in the city — Daley's at 809 E. 63rd, founded in 1892. — with this note:
Many may comment that the Berghoff Restaurant is missing from this book. In fact, the idea for this book was partially inspired by the extensive media coverage and local attention the closing of the Berghoff received. However I, like many Chicagoans, believe the Berghoff's current incarnation is so different from the original that [it] is not the same establishment.

     Amen. Back to Restaurant Schønnemann. The place had a feature which, in a lifetime of eating out at restaurants from Taipei to Santiago, I've never seen before. A little quarter door, so that when the place gets jammed with happy eaters and drinkers, they can let a little ventilation in without simply propping the door open and admitting the Danish cold. I thought it quite clever. Or cute anyway, which might be even better.


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Restaurant Life #3 — Restaurants serve up more than food

     Chicago Restaurant Week already? And me without a gift.
     Actually, I’m always leaving gifts at restaurants, in the form of generous tips, plus those little fees tacked on the end of the bill, for employee health care, supposedly. They’re voluntary, in theory. But I’m not hard-hearted enough to strike them off the tab. Though I wish they’d just fold them into the cost — Kimberly-Clark doesn’t tag an optional nickel on the price of a box of Kleenex so its employees can have sick days.
     Restaurants seem to be getting better at it. It’s been a few years since I was puzzling over the bill at Big Jones, trying to figure out what the 20% ”service fee” might be — that’s the tip, right? Then the waitress, who’d obviously been through this charade before, hurried over to explain that no, it wasn’t the gratuity, but an extra wallop designed to help keep the lights on during COVID-19. Two percent is one thing; 20% is something else. Still, I ponied up, reluctantly — my guests were watching — and walked out brooding that I’d just left 42% extra for an OK brunch. I never went back.
     Restaurants are an odd business. You can eat at home, and usually do. They’re really social/aesthetic experiences disguised as strapping on the feedbag. Of the three legs of any dinner out — food, service, atmosphere — two-thirds don’t involve ingesting anything.
     We need restaurants. How else are we supposed to celebrate occasions? My wife and I tried Rich Melman’s latest, Miru, for my birthday in June. Everyone is raving about the scenery from the 11th floor of Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis Hotel — “Miru” is Japanese for “view” — but honestly it could look out onto a cinderblock wall and I’d be eager to go back, just for desserts like Black Sesame Mochi, described as “Charcoal-Vanilla Ice Cream, Black Sesame Praline, Mochi Sponge.” I don’t know if that sounds as fantastic as it truly was. Let’s put this way: It costs $18, and I can’t wait for the chance to order it again.

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Restaurant Life #2 — Give the man what he wants

Beef and broccoli at Star of Siam. 

     Years ago, there was a restaurant at 1 East Wacker Drive called "The Little Corporal" that had a Napoleon theme. Which was reason enough for me to frequent it. All sorts of prints and etchings of the once-loathed tyrant, on horseback, posing regally, leading his soldiers.
      But they also had a good chicken salad — not chopped chicken with mayo, but a salad with strips of grilled chicken atop it. All things being equal, that's what I want for lunch, then and now, whether out or at home. The protein of the chicken, the bulk of the lettuce, the flavor of the the dressing. The whole gestalt. What's not to love?
     When The Little Corporal
 was a replaced by a steakhouse, I had to go elsewhere — this was back when the paper was at 401 N. Wabash — and for a time I'd go to the Hard Rock Cafe. There was always a line of tourists out the door, but if you were going to the bar, you could bypass the line. So I'd go to the bar, order a salad with chicken on it, and have my lunch.
     One week I did that every day. Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday I was surprised, when it came time to leave, to be informed that the meal was on the house — it isn't easy to prepare food for a clientele that consists of tourists from Iowa here to gawp at Ace Frehley's guitar. It turned out, they were flattered by the idea that some rumpled guy in a coat and tie came by regularly, ate their chow, and left, without even glancing at the case with, oh, a pair of Elton John's eyeglasses in it. 
     Which is a long way of saying that I am a creature of habit, when it comes to restaurants. I tend to go to the same place and order the same thing. The upside being I get what I want. And the downside being I'm cut off from the rich variety that one goes to restaurants to appreciate in the first place. We make our choices in life, and one rule I have is: be who you are.
     The prime example of this dynamic is beef and broccoli. I really like beef and broccoli. Why? Because I like beef. And I like broccoli. Taken together, they are the asian cuisine version of a salad with chicken on it. Yes, not quite as healthful, when you consider the sauce and the fat to cook the meat. But then, a salad loses its dietetic quality once you consider the dressing and the dried cranberries and such. 
     I order it at Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese places, counting on sampling whatever my wife orders to inject a note of variety. The bountiful plate shown above was devoured earlier this year at one of my favorite spots, the Star of Siam, 11 E. Illinois. My wife ordered something that disappointed her — which I regretted, as it dampens your mood when you're loving what you've got and your tablemate is sighing and picking dubiously at what's in front of her — not wrong enough to send back, but a disappointment in some ineffable fashion that takes a long time to explain. Another reason to always get what you want. Almost always. Sometimes I do change it up. It's never quite as good, but it does serve to remind myself of the joy of ordering exactly what you like.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Restaurant Life #1 — Old habits die hard

     It's Chicago Restaurant Week all this week and next. So in the days when my column isn't running —  a new column runs Wednesday — I thought I'd share scenes from the restaurant life.

     So I met a former alderman for lunch earlier this month. No pressing reason — I had suggested lunch, years ago. He recently wrote complimenting me on a column and said that now, in the easier pace that comes with retirement from public office, he's finally ready to take me up on my offer.
     "I have no hidden agenda," he wrote. "I'd just like to break bread with you and hear your insights on the state of politics today and life in general."
     Everybody has a hidden agenda. But okay. It isn't like people are beating down my door. I agreed. He suggested Taste of Peru, and I agreed to that, too. Fun place. A small storefront that nevertheless is home to one of the last of the big personality restaurant hosts, owner Cesar Izquierdo, who comes out and entertains dinners, doing tricks with a wooden top, basically putting on a floor show. Hadn't been there in years.
     I got to the restaurant first. No Cesar. No chicha morada — a purple corn drink I enjoy. Something about not quite ramping back up to speed after the holidays. So I stuck to water. The ex-alderman — no need for names, I don't want to embarrass anybody — was only a little late. We both ordered the lomo saltado — ribeye steak and veggies on rice, their speciality of the house. While we waited, we shared a ceviche appetizer — seafood in lime juice, quite delicious. My lunch mate also asked for three extra meals, carry-out, to take home. Prompted by his example, I got a $5 side of fried plantains for my wife. She likes plantains.
     Conversation was accomplished, in a pleasant, easy fashion. We talked about our children. I brought him up to speed with the paper. He's representing some interests that might be potential stories. The check came. "Why don't we split it?" he suggested. I fixed my gaze on the stack of extra meals he'd ordered for himself until my point registered.
     "Why don't I just pay for what I ordered?" I said, pulling out $40 and handing it to him. He took the money. It was a pleasant enough lunch, as I said. But I don't imagine there will be another.

Lomo saltado.


Sunday, January 21, 2024

Flashback 2005: Liberty overrated, and one proud chef

Cherry Pit grub

Chicago Restaurant Week begins Monday. Regular readers know that I'm a restaurant guy — restaurants help create the illusion of meaning in life — from dining at three Michelin Star Alinea, to lauding a favorite hot dog joint owner. I think I'm going to weigh in this week about it, in the paper. But in the meantime, here's a moment from 2005 worth remembering. I left in the section that ran above it, just in case you've got time to kill. Alas it's as current now as it was 19 years ago, and the last paragraph explains Trump about as well as he can be explained. The original headline was, "Liberty seems pretty far down on world's to-do list."

Opening shot

     Is liberty really "the universal longing of every soul," as Condoleezza Rice told an audience in Egypt this week? Or is that belief merely our gosh-darn American presumption leading us astray again?
     Because, frankly, when I look over the wide swoop of human history, I don't see much pining after liberty. I see a whole lot of "let's go kill those guys and take their stuff." I see quite a bit of "let's roll at the feet of that king." But not much "let's promote liberty so that each of us can breathe free."
     Surveying our world today, people seem to leap to put on the chains of some religion or drug or cause. Even in America, the supposed land of liberty, a big chunk of the population is eager to yank the leash the moment somebody tries to use that liberty to do something they don't like.
     Which liberty, supposedly, allows you to do. The error Rice makes is to assume that, if only Egypt had democracy, why, it would elect a bunch of swarthy Jeffersons. More likely that, given their choice, Egyptians would opt for radical Islamic theocracy, via popular election. We wouldn't like that.
     Rice's mistake is a common one. Those free of oppression have a very difficult time understanding the taste that so many develop for it. I'll never forget, when I finally got the old family boot off my neck and fled to college, the shock I felt that any sane man would join a fraternity.
     "They spend 18 years being told what to do," I said at the time. "Then they go out on their own, finally, and what's the first choice they make? To join a group that forces them to roll an egg with their nose across the quad at midnight, blindfolded."
     Oppression, like drugs, brings some measure of pleasure to those under the yoke. Why else do you think all those Russians are still mooning after Stalin, a half century after his death?

Because good food isn't enough

     I've eaten at a lot of fancy Chicago restaurants over the years, and I thought I knew what good service is. A little bit of theater -- the spinning salad bowl at the old Blackhawk. Some personal service -- Chef Louis Szathmary going from table to table at the Bakery to make sure everybody was happy. The brisk snap of the waiters at Charlie Trotter's. The knowledgeable, I-grew-this-lettuce-from-a-seed-and-now-I'm-gonna-tell-you-all-about-it authority of the staff at Tru.
     But I never grasped what the heart of dining-out hospitality really is, didn't look for, never mind touch, its essence, not until a fry cook named Carmen Vargas turned away from his grill at the Cherry Pit Cafe in Deerfield this past Sunday.
     It was Father's Day and the place — a narrow front with a lunch counter and a big square room in back — was packed. My family had to wait. Four seats opened up at the counter, and we slid on in, picked up our menus, and had that chin-stroking, what-shall-we-have-today moment.
     The special was buttermilk oatmeal pancakes. "I make my own oatmeal pancakes at home," my wife said out loud, to no one in particular, perhaps with a touch of loftiness, the way Queen Elizabeth, offered a $50 gift certificate at Zales, might murmur, "I have jewels back in London."
     We ordered. A few minutes went by while we watched eggs sizzling on the grill and customers bustling in and out behind us. Then Vargas, tall, with an elegant mustache, turned and set a small plate in front of my wife. On it was a single pancake.
     "You mentioned that you make these at home," he said. "But do they taste like this?"
     My wife cut the pancake into four pieces, and we each tried one. Fluffy, oatmeal-infused, slightly sweet — during the comparison of ingredients that followed, Vargas said he puts sugar in the batter.
     "You don't need syrup," he said. My wife pronounced them lighter than her own, my older son decreed they were better, too, which seemed to satisfy him.
     Maybe I wouldn't have noticed if he wasn't a fry cook — usually they stand stolidly before the grills, never turning, pushing out the orders, which were flying fast and furious at the Cherry Pit.
      But his impulse resonated in me. Isn't that the essence of hospitality? The open generosity of sharing, seasoned with a bit of here-try-this-I-made-it-you'll-like-it pride? I thought it exceptional.
                 — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 22, 2005

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Sports Illustrated is dead and I'm not feeling so hot myself


     Whenever I try to convey the bounty that the Chicago Sun-Times offers its readers every weekend with the Sports Saturday wrapper, I say, "It's like Sports Illustrated." Meaning that it is packed with long, complex, interesting articles and dramatic photos. When I stumble across the rare sports story I want to cover, like an older couple hosting three rising hockey players, or a blind radio color commentator, I try to run it on a Saturday, because sports will both package it beautifully and give me room to tell a tale.
     Sports Illustrated was such high quality that you didn't even need to particularly appreciate professional athletics to enjoy it — I remember the raw envy I felt, as a writer, reading an in-depth SI piece on the enormous challenge of washing the laundry for the National Football League. What a great idea, perfectly executed.
    While I wrote my share of sports stories back in the day — golfing in Montego Bay with Arnold Palmer, sitting down to talk football with Tom Landry before a Dallas Cowboys game — I only wrote one piece for Sports Illustrated: a quirky take on how TV cowboy star Roy Rogers invented sports marketing and taught the NFL to license its logos. 
     I was proud of that notch on my belt, and would have loved to show it off, had anybody cared. But they absolutely did not. Not a soul. 
     Why would anyone? Magazines have pretty much washed away in the howling media wordstorm. Time, Life, Newsweek, once-mighty gold-plated brand names that formed the apex of the profession. Now tiny mockeries of their mighty pasts, recognized by a narrowing sliver of the consumer world, like the threadbare names of those defunct products revived in the Lillian Vernon catalogue: Lemon-Up. Prell. Necco Wafers. A familiar logo to slap on a pale imitation slightly resembling its former self.
     But I took comfort knowing SI was there, hanging on. Though battered by the same faltering economic model clubbing down all journalism — the Washington Post is also about to jettison a chunk of its reporters — it still existed.
     Until Friday, when Sports Illustrated fired its entire staff. About 80 journalists, over the side, into the icy chop that awaits the unemployed. From now on, it'll be a nostalgia act, an aggregator. A hook to bait with repackaged material jamming the racks at Walgreens. 
     The temptation is to mourn. But I'm tired of mourning. It's boring. I thought I'd like to talk about what happened, and called my friend, Rick Telander, the dean of American sports columnists, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for 25 years. He knew. He'd make sure that whatever I said at least carried a whiff of veracity.
     "I shouldn't say Sports Illustrated just died because it's already long dead, right?" I said, beginning the conversation. This is just the utter end, the ritual abusing of the corpse. 
     What happened? 
     "Fans know more than we do," said Rick. "And everybody's a photographer."
     Nothing to be done?
     "You're protesting the world," he said. "You're protesting modernity."
     Well, I'm not protesting anything. Just noticing it. I've long said, "Technology wins." No matter how much you liked human telephone operators, they're still gone.
     "To fight it is tilting at windmills," Rick continued. "To bitch about it too much is to bitch about getting old."
     Getting old does bite, particularly the part where ...  no. There's too much of that already. Rick isn't interested in shaking his fist at the young social media stars tramping all over our once exclusive lawn, and neither am I.
     "Time for journalists to figure this out, and stop worrying about the way it used to be," he said. "It's never going back, ever. Taylor Swift has 550 million followers. She has more power than all the newspapers in the United States."
     See, that's what journalists bring to the table. We see what's going on, and we say it. Even if we don't like it. Even if the truth is in no way optimistic — for us. Our houses are on fire; the least we can do is describe the flames, a final act of fealty to our fading vocation.
     "It's the end of what I've chosen as my profession," Rick said. "I never took a vow of irrelevance. That was never part of the deal. Nobody cares. Writing has become a commodity. Everyone can do it."
     I could argue that — actually, everyone can't do it. Obviously. What everyone can do is read, and watch videos, and the time once spent reading a revealing, in-depth profile of a player is now spent watching his girlfriend watch him. There is only so much time in a day.
     "Nobody under 30 reads a newspaper," said Rick. "Do you see them reading long magazine pieces? They get the stuff on Facebook. Go on their phone. Check out the news, go on TikTok and that's it. Who looks at the byline?"
     He said that there was a time when he knew the top sports columnist in every city in the country. He and Rick Morrissey were discussing this recently.
     "We used to know them all," he said. "We couldn't name a sports columnist in Detroit. I can't name a columnist in the entire United States. None."
     I told Rick that I do what I do, not for the benefit of whatever remnants of an audience might yet remain. But for myself. To satisfy my own curiosity, meet my own standards and, not incidentally, make a living.
     "I still care a lot," said Rick. "I never had a job I've been prouder of. Never dreamed I'd be blindsided like this. Didn't expect technology to make it irrelevant. The whole world is changing. I hate the feeling that the thing I chose to do is irrelevant. But it just is."
     I can't tell you if Telander is right, or I simply find myself in the same place and agree with him completely.  Sometimes it seems what I do is dig a hole in the morning, go to sleep, wake up to find it filled, then dig another one. Rinse. Repeat.
     "Every year we have a job is astounding," he said. "This is what I do. I'll do it until it's over."
     That's two of us then. Playing in an orchestra on an antique bandstand set on a cliff at the edge of the sea. Sawing away at our instruments while, every now and then, with increasing frequency, another chunk of cliff gives way, and a cello, or a couple of bassoons go whistling into the abyss. The symphony falters, the music grows thinner, fainter. But the tempo is resumed, until the next crash, a strangled cry and a pair of cymbals go clanging down the sheer rock face followed by a splash.
      If this all sounds depressing, it shouldn't. Some days fun is had, still, and a shimmer of significance forms far away, a mirage deforming the air for a moment before vanishing. The way I see it, not matter how big music streaming services get, there are still a few artisans left making violins. You don't need to sell them to everybody; you just need to sell them to a few customers whose ears can detect the difference between a tune played on a fine instrument and one buzzed out on a comb wrapped in wax paper. 
     When I went into writing, and was warned about how difficult this line of work was as a career, even then, I liked to quote Daniel Webster. Told that the legal profession was an impossibly crowded field, he replied, "There's always room at the top." I believe that still holds true as the journalistic world empties out. If this is the end, well, then, we will endeavor to shine brightly at the end, just as we did at our beginning.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Swirling in the vortex

     As someone fascinated by the 1912 sinking of the Titanic — who isn't? — you'd think the 1997 blockbuster movie "Titanic" would be right up my alley. But it wasn't, and a quarter century since I last viewed the film, I can still point to the moment when director James Cameron lost me: the chase with a handgun, a bit of business added to goose the story further. I remember thinking, "The ship sinking isn't drama enough? They need a gunfight?" It seemed gilding the lily. 
     That moment flashed back when I was standing in the Coconino National Forest Red Rock Ranger Station, going over potential hikes with Rhett, a helpful volunteer. He was pointing out trails on the map, when I noticed a spot labeled "Airport vortex." 
     "Airport vortex?" I asked.
      It turns out that being set in an absolutely stunning physical vista — really, the place makes Boulder look like Kansas — isn't enough. The paranormal powers of the universe have to be summoned like a pack of performing dogs and ordered to do tricks upon command. 
     "They say there are seven natural vortexes in the world, and Sedona has nine of them," Rhett said, neatly summarizing the local attitude toward the New Age hooha forming here like moss on a stone..
     Not that this spiritual claptrap bothered me, per se. Life is hard, the night is long, people need to conjure up all sorts of rococo nonsense to comfort themselves. I get it. So long as they don't use the laws of the country to force their particular brand of gauzy flimflam upon others, it's a free world. It's when you use your personal fairy tale, hardened by the passage of time, to vet the books at the school library, that I feel the need to disagree.
     I wish upon a star, sometimes. I do not, however, insist you get your medical care by appealing to the indifferent cosmos. It is, I believe, an important distinction.
     I never thought about any of this at all while we were hiking. Heads on swivels, trying not to blunder over a cliff while gawping at a mesa, butte or range. But one evening, we decided to go explore the town of Sedona, and found — at least in the Uptown section — an Estes Park-caliber hellscape of carny come-ons. Crystal shops and palmists, vortex vendors. It being offseason and late in the day, we were about the only tourists, and owners stood in the doorways of their establishments, trying to ballyhoo us in. 
     A man in a knit cap and a swami-length beard urged us inside for a "sound bath," and interpretive reading, an offer so strange I was tempted to inquire about what that might be. But I knew if I made eye contact with them man he'd wrap his arms around my knees and we'd never get away.
      We have friends ... treading carefully here ...  whose broad-minded approach to life allows them explore realms that I'm too narrow to consider. So we hit a few of the shops, looking for presents. Again, the patient work of a thousand millennia, the intense physical forces that formed these quartzes and gemstones, doesn't do the trick, apparently, for some. It isn't enough. These materials also have to heal you if you, oh I don't know, rub them on your afflicted parts — your head, I imagine. Merely being malachite won't satisfy some folks; it has to cure you too. I very much wanted to challenge one of the employees, to say, "If this stuff works, if you're so centered and purified and healed and enriched, spiritually, then why are you hawking wildly overpriced pebbles in a strip mall in Arizona?" But I'm a kind soul, we all struggle. Besides, then I'd be harassing clerks in tourist trap curio shops, and what good is moral clarity if you use it to browbeat people? An insight I wish I could magically impart to my friends on the left.
      The place depressed us. But fortunately I heard music coming out of a restaurant — Agave 89 — a pair of guitarists and a drummer doing Latino-tinged tunes. We slipped in and sat down. The music perked us right the hell up — it so strange that people would feel the need to conjure up all these wild and imaginary claims for inert stones. When a spiritual force that really does refresh and redeem your spirit is always available to anyone who can whistle. Maybe the problem is, music is free. Or at least quite reasonable ready to be rented for the price of an NA beer and a really quite good mushroom quesadilla.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Room with a view


View from Room 237, Sky View Lodge, Sedona Arizona.

     My wife and I don't usually pop for a room with a view. The idea being that we aren't planning to spend time in the hotel room, gazing out the window. Instead we'll be outside, experiencing whatever place we are visiting. Stow the luggage, grab a map and get out of there. By the time we get back, it's dark. So why waste the money?
      But something told us to pony up — and it wasn't much; an extra $50 a night, maybe — for a room at the Sky Ranch Lodge in Sedona, Arizona facing Red Rock State Park and, well, just look at it. Our first morning here we took our coffee on the porch and, honestly, for a moment I thought of suggesting we not go anywhere. Spend the day sitting here. Because really, what could be better than this?
     That was a dumb idea, as we found out when we tore ourselves away and spend a delightful three hours exploring the trails off the Sugar Loaf trail head.  We pretty much had the place to ourselves — it's off season here in Arizona, meaning the temperature is in the 40s — balmy compared to Chicago — and we passed other hikers about once every 20 minutes. If that.
     I've been hankering for such a place. The old familiar rooms and vistas are nice. But after a while, you just want to see something incredible. At least I do. The restorative thing about nature, besides the sheer physical beauty, and the physical exertion it takes to clomp through it, is its utter timelessness. The view of Castle Rock is the same now as it was 5,000 years ago, or 5,000 years from now, for that matter, and our petty worries of the moment are reduced to frost on a stone. Thanks nature, I needed that.
    I should add that the people at Sky Ranch Lodge were exceptionally nice — from Larry, who drove the shuttle van, to the kids behind the desk, suggesting hikes and restaurants. I've been to too many places where the staff are so busy daydreaming about whatever they imagine their calling may be when they finally find a way to escape the hospitality business that they forget their job right now is to make you feel welcome. Not here. Our comings and goings were marked by a fanfare of friendliness. 
The same red buttes provided background
for George Herriman's classic comic.
     I brought up the subject to one of the managers, and he suggested it is because the Sky Ranch has been family-owned since 1982. That makes sense to me. When it's y0ur own business, you tend to run it better. With the possible exception of this one here, which certainly has been phoned in the past week while I've been having some R & R out West (in Coconino County. "Krazy Kat country!" I enthused when we passed a sign). So thank you for indulging me, and not complaining too much, and I'll be back in Chicago soon, doing what I do best. Or at least do well enough to get by.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Won't it just get stolen again?


      So ... in case you missed it. Two-thirds of Republicans in Iowa told pollsters they believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen from them. 
     Returning to a question that sits in the back of the rooms, waving its hand and going "Oh! Oh! Oh!" as the years click by.
     If they believe that ... if they really believe that ... then why are they voting at all? Give their claim that their previous ballot was stolen from them in some ineffable way their supreme leader, Losey L. McLoser can't even explain, never mind prove, then why even go through the motions of voting? Why waste their precious time? When all the Democrats — the same people who stole the last election and got away clean, remember — have to do is flip a switch or spin a dial or whatever they were supposed to have done last time. And wham-o. The election will be stolen again. Why vote? Why campaign? Why buy ads?
     Maybe they don't really believe it? Because they don't really believe anything, anymore. The entire bedrock of factuality having finally eroded away, in the torrent that is Trumpism. Nothing is true, or, rather, anything is true, if it serves the needs of the moment, reality being a paper napkin used to blot the spittle off your lips, then be tossed aside. There is always another one, a whole stack of momentary beliefs, waiting to serve.
     Maybe their fearless leader hasn't addressed this conundrum and so they have no opinions on the matter, the only way a thought enters their head is because someone inserted it there via Fox News. That sounds like a possibility as well. 
     Maybe the problem is mine. This whole applying reason business, this charade of slathering thought over the general confabulation of Republican madness an exercise in futility, like trying to measure a cloud with a calipers; the thing is too far away, moving too fast and dissolving at the same time. The election being stolen is just a bit of faux history, like the Jews killing Christ, used to rationalize whatever it is you want to do. They don't care if it's true or not; the important thing is, it's a story that serves, a means justifying the end.
    Enough. I'm still on vacation — having fun, thank you very much — but I didn't have the heart to dig up another old chestnut or scoop out spoonful of unpublished mash that was better left supperating in a jar in the back of the refrigerator. So I thought I'd try my hand at assembling my inchoate thoughts about Monday's election kabuki into some kind of cogent order. Honestly, I didn't find the news that grim. Almost half of the Republicans caucusing in Iowa didn't vote for Trump. Maybe the spell is lifting a little. Heck, any Republican who would vote for Ron DeSantis might also not vote at all. Or vote for Joe Biden. Anything is possible. In the worst sense of the term. We should all agree on that by now. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Mentor is a city in Ohio

    Too much of my stuff is cringingly confessional. TMI, as the kids say. But believe it or not, there are actually pieces that I write, then decide are too personal to share. Such as this one, written half a year ago. But then time passes, I need something, and I figure, "Oh fuck it, why not?"

     "I'm sure the young people at the paper must look up to you," my mother said. "And you mentor them."
     I paused. And smiled. A weary kind of smile. Then immediately became lost in a memory from high school. Sophomore year, I hope. So say I was 16, which makes your mother picking out your clothes for you less bad. But I was wearing what she would refer to as "an outfit." Bluejeans. A matching jeans vest. And some kind of western shirt a color I can still see. Sort of a burnt orange. I wore it, and came home, and my mother said, in 1977.
     "Did the kids at school like your outfit?"
     And I remember pausing, struck, 46 years ago. Then smiling, slowly, I imagine that same weary kind of smile. Marveling, really, that my mother imagined I lived in a world where that could conceivable happen, and not my actual high school, where students got into brawls and one threw a teacher through a window. Perhaps some version of Archie comics, with Reggie and Jughead waving as I pull up in my converted Model T with a raccoon's tail on the aerial and school cheer slogans soaped on the doors.
     "Hey Neil, those are some rad threads!"
     "Why thank you Bettie, my mother picked them out for me."
     I don't know how I answered. Probably something terse, "No ma, of course not. People don't even lift up their heads so I can say hello." This was back when employees still went into the office on a regular basis. Though I realize that quality, that expectation, must live in me as well, which is unfortunate, because it has been an engine of disappointment.
     As for the young people at the paper, there is nothing knowledge-based I can say.  Years ago, when people would ask me what the mood at the paper is, I'd say, "There aren't enough people to maintain a mood." Now there are more staffers, enough for a frisson if not a mood. But scattered, and I'd never presume to imagine what they think about anything. You'd have to ask them. I sure wouldn't. My confidence isn't high. I  remember how it was when I was a young reporter, and how I viewed the old fogeys with lip curling contempt. Larry Weintraub, getting a tattoo of a quill pen and ink bottle on his bicep — because he's a writer, see? — and wearing short-sleeved shirts with the sleeves rolled up, a la Bob Fosse, to show it off. Cringe. The "Weintraub's World" columns where he worked for a day as a dishwasher, or a circus clown, or was dipped in pudding. It seemed the worst trivialization of the lives of working people. At least it kept me from ever doing that sort of thing myself. Long gone.
     I did admire some of my elders — Roger Ebert and M.W. Newman, and Irv Kupcinet. I remember arguing with people who didn't extend to the latter what I considered the proper respect. "Don't you understand? He once got in a brawl with Dizzy Dean and the starting lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals in the lobby of a Florida hotel in 1935? Harry Truman would call him on the phone and ask him to keep an eye on his daughter when she was in town. Clark Gable would go to parties at his apartment in East Lake View."
     But I saw how the rest viewed him, with a "Why is he still here?" smirk. In my heart I agreed with them. He had reached his sell-by date, but there he was, still the shelf, covered in mold. Nobody was buying it anymore.
     Why am I still here? Not mold-covered, I hope. But picking off bits of brown growing here and there, a losing battle. Why? A good question. I suppose for the same reason anybody is anywhere. I got hired once, and here I am, trying to do the best I can with what I've got until somebody or something makes me stop.



Monday, January 15, 2024

Flashback 2007: He can't Trump us — It's hard to believe Chicagoans could really fall for The Donald's nonsense

     Roseanne Barr is an alarmingly stupid person. She hasn't always been that way — I remember her original appearance on Johnny Carson, when she was a rare blue collar female voice cracking wise about her life. Her first show was pretty good too.
    But obviously the years have not been kind to Roseanne Barr. She managed a comeback, and was starring in ABC's No. 1 show in 2018 when she sent a tweet suggesting that Michelle Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was the progeny of an ape. ABC canned her faster than soup. At the time, I saw it as a cautionary tale about the importance of professional public relations.
    She doesn't have a career to ruin anymore, but is still saying astoundingly stupid things ... her latest gaffe, well, it's too idiotic to describe. Google "Roseanne Barr" and "holocaust" if you want the details. It made me wonder what I've written about her in the past and I noticed this — ANOTHER column mocking Donald Trump YEARS before he decided to inflict himself upon our nation as its president. It doesn't predate my first jab, in 2000, but being from 2007, it's worth sharing, as a reminder that I understood 16 years ago what too many people STILL can't figure out. I've kept the column's subheadings.

Opening Shot

     That Donald Trump sure has gall. After he voided the contracts of those unfortunates who bought early in his condo tower project at Wabash and Wacker, pointing at a hidden line of legalese to yank back the units he sold them and snatch their profit, I assumed it would be a long time before he'd dare set foot in this town again.
     Yet, there he was, in the flesh, trying to lure more dupes to buy, hoping they'll ignore his reneging on sales to the first group.
     Does the Trump name really confer status? In New York, maybe, where they're trained to wait behind red velvet ropes and gawp at minor celebrities. But it's hard to believe that Chicagoans fall for that nonsense. Living in a Trump Building is like driving a Hummer — a lunge at status that indicts more than it elevates.

But they are home...

     Certain subjects rarely get in this column — divorces, for instance. They are inevitably what I call "a dog's breakfast" — a complex jumble of messed-up stuff that would take an enormous amount of effort and energy to make sense of.
     The immigration bill is the same way. At first, I thought, aha, at last, a bipartisan agreement! But the more you look at it, the more it seems a hodgepodge that really doesn't accomplish anything.
     Instead of worrying about the bill itself — which probably will go nowhere, at least in its current form — let's take a moment to glance at the two main alternatives.
     First, there is the "send-'em-back" fantasy. No responsible person actually believes that all 12 million illegal immigrants should be rounded up — held in concentration camps, perhaps — and then shipped back to Mexico.
     But that dream underlies much public opinion. It lurks behind those lashing out at "amnesty." They were wounded somehow, in their past — maybe someone once peed in their alley, maybe they were awakened by a loud car stereo, maybe someone once tried to speak Spanish to them, and they were frightened, and the fear stuck.
     Sending illegals home being impossible, those who find the idea appealing instead tacitly endorse a second route: doing nothing:
     Forget that we've already been doing nothing, for years. Forget that doing nothing leaves us with an enormous underclass of noncitizens who can't vote and have only limited legal rights.
     Which leads us back to the bill. Maybe it'll work, maybe we'll find a new compromise. But we need to do something. Because we've tried nothing and it doesn't work.

Today's chuckle:

     In time for Memorial Day, a tribute to vets, from Roseanne Barr: 
     Vietnam vets, I have a lot of empathy for them. They had to go to a horrible place and perform a hideous job for people who didn't even appreciate it.
     I know what that's like; I used to be a waitress at Denny's.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 27, 2007