Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Matzo brei: The treat that comes but once a year.

Matzo brei prepared properly, aka hard, on the left, and that other way, to the right.

     The electric company ended Passover early this year. Well, at least in one tweet yesterday, claiming the holiday ended Monday night — 24 hours ahead of when the holiday actually ends. Eight days. It's a wonder the lights stay on at all. 
     A forgivable lapse — though one they did not correct themselves, even when I politely pointed the error out to them. Few corporations do; they tend to blunder on instead. 
     Not a failing that can be written off to ComEd being a gentile company — Jews have a way of rushing their own holidays, whether convening sundown at mid-afternoon on Yom Kippur. Or returning to bread a few days before Passover officially ends. Tuesday night. One misses bread. 
    Myself, I actually need that full eight days, for a reason I've never seen committed to print, so this might be a first. The full eight days are required to get your matzo brei in. 
    Allow me to explain. Matzo brei is a traditional dish of eggs and matzo — not to be confused with egg matzo, which is matzo baked with egg in it. Matzo brei — also called "egg matzo" — is a breakfast dish.   It isn't intrinsically heavy, but is so good, you tend to eat a lot. I do, anyway. So while you are tempted the first few mornings of Passover, the idea is dismissed — everyone's too full from the night before (there are two Seders, on consecutive nights; don't ask why; it's complicated) and, besides, there are all those leftovers to eat.
     But — and this is a rule of my own — you only eat matzo brei during Passover, because otherwise the foodstuff would escape into the rest of the year and a) lose its specialness and b) you'd eat it continually, the way I do Bays Raisin and Cinnamon English Muffins. (although, they never lose their specialness, because they're so super special, and since I haven't had any the week of Passover, when I do, Wednesday morning — pay attention, ComEd! — they'll be doubly extra special). 
      Suddenly Tuesday and Wednesday — impossible, due to the Seders the night before — slip into Thursday and Friday. The matzo brei doesn't get eaten then because preparing it is a production and after the ordeal of preparing for the Seder one craves normal, eat-and-run life. The canyon floor was rushing up. Finally Sunday we dove in and had our matzo brei.
     Although — and this is why I'm writing this — this year my wife and I parted ways when it came to matzo brei preparation. Matzo brei is prepared by wetting matzo in water, mixing it with scrambled eggs then frying it. And my wife likes hers well-soaked in water, so it's soft. Which I suppose is fitting under strict literal interpretation: matzo brei translates out as "matzo porridge." 
    Me, I like the matzo just kissed by the water, so it's hard, or hardish. A quick rinse, then broken into the eggs, stirred a bit, then into the hot pan.
     In past years, we've compromised by eating matzo brei twice — one made her way, aka  wrong. And once my way, preserving the dish's delightful tactile firmness. But this year we decided just to each prepare our own meal. Which struck me as slightly dubious, like couples having separate bank accounts or taking separate vacations. We're sort of joined at the hip, my wife and I, and preparing separate meals, not our style.  Generally.
     But I only eat the stuff once a year, and want matzo brei the way God intended, aka, my way. As did my wife.  Although we did not  — Israelis and Palestinians take note — kill each other over it. We made accommodations to our divergent claims on reality.
     We didn't consult beforehand — my wife just set out two cast iron pans — and I noticed differences. I used three pieces of matzo while she used six, which took me aback. When I inquired, she said she planned on having extra to take to work Monday, another practice I'd never consider —you don't reheat matzo brei, but consume it all, immediately after being prepared. She used vegetable oil. And I used butter because, as Napoleon said, if you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna.  One doesn't skimp on a meal you eat once a year. With lots of sugar. Though she uses salt. Which is also wrong. 
      We each did sample one anothers preparation — I found hers soft.  She tried mine and did not remark upon it. Being polite, no doubt. Frankly, she could have spat it into a napkin. I didn't care. This is my annual matzo brei.
      As we ate, we discussed that. She mentioned that we could, you know, enjoy matzo brei at other times of the year. "We have turkey when it isn't Thanksgiving," she argued. Yes, well, that's turkey, and this is matzo brei. Once a year. No more. To do otherwise would be crazy.

Three matzos + two eggs = one plate of delicious matzo brei as God intended.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Into the ward of memory


     One day the hiring hall agent that is Fate will read your name off a card. He'll shake the card in your direction, smirking, while you desperately look around for somebody else to take it. But nobody will, so the job falls to you.
     We put off moving my father downstairs to the locked memory ward as long as we could. Not that it mattered much to him. My father doesn't care what couch he sits on.
     But my mother cares. Very much. She met him when she was 18 and a freshman at Ohio State. Now she is 87. Do the math. They married in 1956. She wants him on the sofa next to her.
     They'd lived together for two years at a senior residence facility in Buffalo Grove. He had been having ... umm ... issues. Behavior that no dynamic lifestyle community is going to tolerate in the general population. Memory care ward level stuff. They pressed, we delayed.
     But there was another episode, and suddenly the ground was gone from under us. They were moving him whether we agreed or not.
     Or more accurately, I was moving him. Now was the time. My brother and my wife provide continual, crucial help. But not today. Today Fate handed me the card.
     Time to walk my father's downstairs to his new home. I checked with the staff to determine their role. Just do it, they said. I returned to their room 216. He was on the couch, watching TV with my mother. Time for the earth to shift.
     "Lets go, dad," I said, helping him stand up and setting his walker before him. I'd take a few steps, his pillow under my arm. then pause, waiting for him to catch up. "How you doing, Dad?" I'd call back, turning to check on his progress. We went downstairs. I pressed a doorbell. They saw us through the narrow window and buzzed us in.
     The dementia patients were together, having snacks when their new associate arrived. Quesadilla or yogurt? I went to put his pillow in his room and returned. My father was talking to the people around him.
     "You don't get older in Boulder," he was telling them. His standard quip. He thinks he's still in Colorado. Rhyme is the last thing to go. Along with obscenity.
     Leaving him with his snack, I went back to my mother, sitting in her wheelchair, alone in her room.
     "Hug me," she said when I walked in. I did, leaning over.
     "No one to talk with ..." she sang softly. "All by myself."
     "No one to walk with," I joined in. "But I'm happy on the shelf."
     My mother sang with the USO. Flew to Europe on an Army Super Constellation with the Coca Cola Radio Nanigans when she was 16 to entertain the troops. I know 1950s hit songs by heart the way a child raised in France knows French.
     "Ain't misbehavin', I'm saving my love for yooouuuu ..." we crooned together.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

The whole world is watching ... us

     Actually, I have sympathy for those protesting against the war in Gaza. They see the images of suffering, the children, the hunger, the death. How could you not be moved? How could you blame anyone for raising their voice? For trying to do something.
     Besides, they're students, mostly. They have the energy, and time on their hands. Why not set up tents and conduct a kind of ongoing public temper tantrum, holding their breath until world events reorder themselves to their liking? Live deeply.
     Yes, they are young. The young get worked up, carried away. In damning the war, they also damn Israel — should never have been founded in the first place! — and Zionists and even Jews who sometimes are Zionists, at least when they're not contorting themselves, trying to outdo the Palestinians in taking a one-sided, 0 or 1, right v. wrong view of the situation. 
     Rather than blame Benjamin Netanyahu — I'd be in agreement, if not right beside them — they decry the existence of the country itself, and demand "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." The "...of Jews" part is unvoiced. Which means, they aren't against genocide, per se, but simply prefer the world stick to the traditional victims. They aren't radicals, but conservatives, playing an old game. Although that part gets said out loud more and more. Juden raus. Worked for great-granddaddy, works for us. Forgetting that a nation's existence isn't a global referendum or campus popularity contest — if it were, the United States would have blinked off the world map long ago. 
     Here's what I feel obligated to point out: the main change being demanded by all theses springtimes protests is not that Hamas accept a cease-fire — odd that they never ask that, maybe because they know Hamas doesn't give a fuck what they think — but that the universities they attend must divest from investing in companies involved with Israel. A rather long-term solution to an immediate crisis — kind of like holding hands around a house that's burning down and demanding that deeper wells be dug. Maybe that would help, down the road. But right now...
    And in truth, divesting wouldn't even help down the road. As always with the young, they wildly exaggerate their own place in an indifferent world. 
     Being adults, let's do the math, shall we? In 2023, the cumulative total of American university endowments was $839 billion. And the stock market is worth $50 trillion. Making the investments held by U.S. colleges about 1.6 percent of the total U.S. financial markets. So if every single American university immediately pulled every single dime of their investments from companies involved with Israel or the Israeli military, it would affect the economic health of Israel not much, and the war in Gaza even less. The change they demand is like leveling a fine of $100, payable in 2047.
     Not that protests are without merit. They do pressure Joe Biden to in turn pressure the Israelis to wrap this up already. Which is probably a good thing since destroying Hamas doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon. At least it's an open question whether Israel is killing Hamas fighters faster than its recruiting new ones. Meanwhile, all those innocents are still suffering and dying. Though speaking of suffering the protests risk running into the summer, undercutting the Dems, and helping to elect Donald Trump, who is Benjamin Netanyahu's best buddy and moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem simply as a big Fuck You to Palestinians. It's odd to demand other people consider the consequences of what they're doing while at the same moment ignoring the consequences of what you're doing. But that's people for you.
    Besides, they aren't protesting for the Palestinians, but for themselves. The protests are engaging street theater, allowing a number of college students to feel they are working the treadles and warps of current events, weaving the fabric of history. That has to put a spring in their step. Plus their classes are about done, though you have to wonder, watching certain students coping with the fallout of their murderous rhetoric, what their job prospects are going to look like when they flash their Northwestern resumes at white shoe law firms. "The summer of 2023 I was interning at the Children's Legal Center. Then summer 2024 I stood in Deering Meadow chanting 'Death to Jews'..." The internet is forever.
    Until then, it's a sideshow, a distraction. Almost ironic. The public is sort of thick, and it could be argued that the protests draw attention away from the war they're supposed to be ending. Counter-intuitive things happen, and it's somehow fitting that kids in Evanston and Morningside Heights and Los Angeles would find a way to make this all about them, and the suffering they endure at the hands of police. Am I wrong to reserve my sympathy for the children of Gaza?

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Flashback 2008: Fading into oblivion, Jackson not interested in being an elder statesman

Still Life of Fruit and Nuts, by Giuseppe Ruoppolo (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Rev. Jesse Jackson was in the news this week, as his putative replacement took a powder. I was tempted to pile on, but Jackson, to me, is something of a pitiable figure by this point. I've had my say over the years. One moment that stayed with me is when he showed up at the editorial board to make his case for getting the credit for Barack Obama.


     "Nuts," like "balls," is one of those words whose acceptability shifts dramatically depending on the context — perfectly fine when referring to dense, oily fruits (yes, nuts are actually fruit) such as almonds or pecans, but much squishier, so to speak, when used as the vulgar slang for testicles, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson did, into an open microphone on Fox News.
     "I want to cut his nuts out," the minister said, referring to Barack Obama.


     In a rare switch, the usually edgy Sun-Times dashed the word in its Thursday edition, 
"n - - -" as if it were an obscenity, while the more staid Tribune unblinkingly ran the cheery little term, and on its front page, no less.
     Such confusion is natural, since threatening castration blazes new territory in political discourse — I was intrigued by the use of the adverb "out," which seems more suited to talking about removing an embedded object, such as a heart. "Off" seems to be preferable when discussing something so pendulous.
    This kerfuffle was probably inevitable. It seemed odd and out-of-character when Jackson made the rounds a few weeks back, head bowed, quietly lobbying for recognition of his role in the historic ascension of Obama. An ego as massive as Jackson's could not remain in a humble supporting role for long.
     Of course he'd slip and grab at the curtains. Dreams die hard and dreams of power die even harder. The old guard seldom quietly departs, and it was too much to hope that Jackson could age gracefully into an elder statesman for the black community. Rather, he seems set on becoming the crazy uncle in the attic, the guy you can't introduce to your friends, because he has evil thoughts and a dirty mouth.
     The other noteworthy thing about Jackson's humiliating gaffe came about because Fox was the only news outlet in possession of the tape of his crude remarks, and held onto it to hype Bill O'Reilly's blabfest in the evening.
     This led to the unusual situation of the apology preceding the insult, as Jackson, savvy enough to know what was coming, leapt to say he was sorry even before the offensive words became public.
     This breaks his previous apology record, where news of his out-of-wedlock child was followed almost immediately by his plea for forgiveness and an announcement that he had gone into seclusion for several minutes of soul-searching and was now ready to resume his place as guardian of the nation's conscience.
     Perhaps this will be the start of a trend, as politicians gaze into the future, imagine what slurs they will utter or excesses they will commit, and apologize for them ahead of time.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 11, 2008

Friday, April 26, 2024

Trumpet story post mortem

     As someone who loves his job, I don't keep scrupulous tabs on my hours. The penumbra between working and not working is so gradual and hazy, that doing so would be impossible. Am I on the clock lying in bed in the darkness, thinking about the lede to a story? Sitting in Orchestra Hall listening to a symphony? Life and work are like two ballroom dancers, in tight embrace, gliding across a polished floor. Best not to try to pry them apart.
     Technically, I'm scheduled Monday through Friday. But every Sunday morning I'm prepping Monday's column. Not that I'm complaining. Monday afternoon might find me working in the garden. Both the Sun-Times and I seem satisfied with the arrangement.
     I'm expected to turn in three columns a week, to run Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Before the blog, I used to smile, inwardly, when somebody said they read me "every day," thinking, "What are you doing the other four days — hallucinating?" But now of course there is this blog, where that is possible.
      Though sometimes circumstances dictate that I write one or two extra columns in the paper, reacting to breaking news events, and I don't mind those —it's good to be wanted. Though last Sunday's epic about trumpets was something of an exception, because involved so much work — what with driving to Elkhart and three trips downtown connecting with Conn Selmer and the CSO. I was ready to involve Schilke, another trumpet company in Chicago, and a guy who makes mouthpieces in the Fine Arts Building, when I realized I had gotten far beyond anything that could reasonably be put into a newspaper. The column got shifted to Sunday, because there is more real estate to fill, which was fine, but I didn't want to then disgorge an extra column too.
     The original plan was to miss Monday. But then I decided to break off the two Morgan Park High School students from their reduced role at the end and let them shine a bit in their own column. So that ran Monday. And Tuesday, batting out a blog post about the Seder, I fluttered my fingers over the keyboard and thought, "You know ... this is good ... maybe it should run in the paper." So we ran it Wednesday, and I'm glad, as a lot of readers seemed to really appreciate the column.
     But I did take Friday off, mostly to show I can. I d0n't want to be one of those guys who can't not work, can't step off the treadmill. Though it left me with the question of what to run here. My first thought was the picture above, a Conn Selmer worker checking the straightness of a length of tubing. And a few words to go with it. A whole lot of words, now that I look at it.  One does tend to go on. And on.
    There was something about the photo that appealed to me; the pose, obviously, something almost triumphant about his attitude, like the Bowman and the Spearman, the deco Native-Americans on horseback at Michigan and Ida B. Wells, with their straining bows. Maybe it was his goggles, or the red — his shirt, some kind of scoop device in the foreground, and that beam — cutting the industrial gray.
     There's something appealing about photos of people in protective gear — masks, gloves, helmets. They must appeal to the little boy in me. Like this stooped fellow with his blue balaclava and ear cups. When I see guys who have jobs like this, grinding burrs off trumpets eight hours a day, I remind myself once again to try to appreciate the job I have, one that takes me wherever I want to go, when I want to go there. Because sometimes I forget.
     There are difficulties. A story like the trumpet piece, you are so immersed, it can be hard to stop. I get used to working on them, and hate to just let the subject drop. As it is, I plan to circle back to the CSO. 
     I hadn't planned on stumbling across the voodoo hacks — Bud Herseth's silver bridge ending up as patches on the bell of Esteban Batallan's trumpet — but in giving space to that, I had to lose some cool details of the production process. I woke up Sunday morning thinking. "I didn't mention the Crisco." The factory lubricates one of the 490 steps to make a trumpet with Crisco oil, which I found charming, the out-of-place foodstuff in a manufacturing process, like discovering that deep at the stern of a diesel ship is a collar of lignum vitae, a dense, oily wood;  the shaft passes through it, from the engine room, outside the hull, connecting to the propellers.
     Nor did I mention the workers who go over the finished trumpets, circling dings and scratches in a red china marker so they can be buffed out — nobody wants to spend $3,000 for a trumpet that arrives with a ding or scratch in it. Imagine doing that all day.
     There were two interesting errors in the original story. At first I called the organ on stage at the CSO "a church organ," which prompted two readers to observe that church organs are found in churches. I changed that to "pipe organ." And originally I hyphenated Conn Selmer. I had asked Mark Dulin, the artists' rep, whether it is hyphenated or not, and he said it wasn't. But working for the company didn't necessarily make him the final word, and looking over the corporate material, the hyphen seemed to be used more often than it wasn't, so we went with it, because the crown in the logo seems to be a hyphen. Then after the story ran, the Conn Selmer folks asked if we could take it out and, since it's their company and they should be called what they want to be called, I laboriously plucked all those hyphens out.
      I've gone into the weeds, haven't I? Time to wrap this up. I need the day off.
      You might wonder why I take photos at all — with ace photographer Ashlee Rezin right there. Three reasons, I suppose. One: force of habit; the paper was without a photo staff for many years, I just got used to taking my own photos. Two: it's quicker to take a photo than jot down the details of a scene, and I use them in constructing my story; and Three: to use here. I don't want to seize the work of my photographer colleagues, and so take my own shot to illustrate my blog posts, though the pro shots are always better, and I often seek permission to use them. Nobody has ever said 'No.'
    Anyway, a bit of background, in case anyone's interested. If not, well, there's always tomorrow.

Jim Dwyer buffing trumpets at Conn Selmer.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Flashback 1995: Landmark Deli Serves Its Last Meals

I was never an admirer of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, but that can be chalked up to ignorance. Every time I went was to write about something else — its opening ceremonies, or police cadet training, or one of the museum founders. My complaint was that they had watered down the horror of the 20th century into a lesson for 5th graders about bullying. 
     That wasn't fair, as I learned when I actually went through the place, and for the strangest reason. My wife had never gone at all, but they had a special exhibit about Jewish delis. Who doesn't love a Jewish deli? She wanted to see it. 
     The show seemed an odd fit, the sort of thing I'd criticize without actually experiencing. But it got us there a few weekends ago, the day before the show closed. 
     We saw the deli show first, which was smart. It was well done, adroitly tying the rise of the deli to Jewish immigration, and linking specific Chicago delis, like Kaufman's, to Jewish refugees arriving here immediately after the Holocaust. 
    Then we saw the museum itself. Not the full nine-ring plunge into Dantean hell like the one in Washington. But a thoughtful representation, well worth the, oh, three hours we spent there. The most sober aspect is how current the 1930s feel today.
     In the deli exhibit, I noticed a sign for Nate's, which sparked a memory. I visited before they closed it down, and bought a jar of herring from the last batch. This is my brief report.     

     The smell of dill pickles, the rhythmic kathuck-kathuck of the corned beef slicing machine, fresh rye bread, the murky green jars of pickled tomatoes and kosher dills and, above all, the happy fluttering of human voices.
     "This is all you want, young man?" says Robert L. Williams, from behind the ancient counter. "You want some hot peppers? You said mustard? Why certainly you can. Thank you, sir."
     The smells, the sounds, the voices — all this will disappear when Nate's Delicatessen closes its doors forever today, after 74 years at 807 W. Maxwell.
     "It's going to be sad to walk out of here after 48 years," says Nathan Duncan, 64, who has worked at the deli since 1946, and owned it since 1972. "I've never had another job."
     The deli is a true anachronism — an artifact from the days when Maxwell Street was a sprawling Jewish ghetto. The Jews have moved away, but Nate's, and its hearty Jewish fare, has remained.
     As humble as the deli is — with its decrepit tin ceiling, hand-cut wooden floor rails and seating for, maybe, six — it has known its share of fame. Blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor have eaten there, as well as a range of celebrities from Red Skelton to Sen. Everett Dirksen. A scene from "The Blues Brothers" was filmed there.
     But Nate's isn't about fame. It isn't even about Jewish food. It's about people — meeting, talking, eating together.
     Duncan points to a bespectacled gentleman sitting by the stove.
     "Frank has been coming here since he was a little boy. He'd rather sleep in that chair than sleep at home."
     "It's a tremendous loss," says Frank Williams, 45. "This place is a relic. Politics was discussed here. It was a meeting place, people met here and talked."
     Unlike the old Maxwell Street Market, Nate's was not forced out. But Duncan realized it was just a matter of time. So he sold to the University of Illinois at Chicago, which plans to build a parking lot and an athletic field.
     Displaying a jar of pickled herring, Duncan says, "I just made my last batch. This is a Russian dish."
     He savors the irony.
     "A black guy making a Russian delicacy." He smiles. "I learned the recipe from the mother of the former owner. You know, the Jewish ladies, they tried to get the recipe out of me. They tried to con it out of me. But I never did tell them. They still don't know."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 15, 1995

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Passover during wartime

     Being Jews, of course Monday night's Passover Seder veered onto tangents. Non-standard digressions based on the concerns of those present: salaams toward mysticism and solemn recognition of Oct. 7 and the ongoing war in Gaza. So much that the usual tug-of-war over gender equity mostly fell by the wayside.
     I was not involved with any of these flourishes, my lone suggestion — place an olive on the Seder plate as mute representation of Palestinian suffering — steamed away in a glare of reproach. No olives, no oranges — keep it simple. It was as if I suggested the egg on the plate be replaced by a sheep's eye, to represent social media. I get that. Each group cherishes its own injuries while diminishing those of everybody else; that's why the world is the way it is.
     Instead there was an empty chair affixed with a picture of a hostage, Naama Levy, 19, and a reading describing her many fine qualities. A poem explaining that Elijah will not be coming today. He usually shows up, notionally. We always open the door to greet him. The kiddies love that, and in years past would sneak out beforehand and present themselves as Elijah, disguised. Not this year; we didn't open the door to greet the tardy prophet because he's too busy tending to the truly bereft, supposedly.
     "We're never eating," I muttered to my wife, about 8:30 p.m., with the show barely begun.
     Mostly, I'm a go-along-to-get-along type of host, so I smiled and nodded at almost anything anybody brought to the table. Though the smile grew tight as the Seder progressed. At one point I felt compelled to point out that this is not our first rodeo, suffering-wise, that Jews held Seders in concentration camps, and that while I'm all for recognizing the crisis, I would hate for Passover, at heart a celebration of freedom, to lose its sense of joy, obscured by current events. We should still appreciate the bounty before us and the company of each other, loved ones whom history has, through some uncharacteristic oversight, failed to murder, so far.
     "We're still singing 'Chad Gadya,'" at the end," I observed, referring to a strange song about "one little goat my father bought for two zuzim." That's my favorite part.
     Much went as it always does. My wife's matzo balls were the ideal cannonball density. The chicken was excellent, despite having to linger in the oven for longer than was strictly necessary as the various sharp edges of the present were flashed. The children still played under the table as if the world were a wonderful place to explore, ready to welcome all with open arms.
     My life can be broken into three 20-year Seder blocks. From 1960 to 1980, there were Seders at my grandparents in Cleveland, with my grandpa's machine-gun, Polish shtetl Hebrew, that always sounded like "hamma-humma-wumma-chumma."
     Then 20 years at my in-laws in Skokie, with Irv whooping over the hotness of the horseradish and Dorothy fussing over everybody and the repurposed cleaning lady in the kitchen, doing dishes. I sometimes wondered about her: What did she make of our singing "Dayenu?" The chorus sounds like "Die! Die! Anu!" Did she think the Jews were chanting for death? Because that's how we're viewed in some quarters. I used to sometimes wish we actually were the hard, unified, bloodthirsty people we are made out to be — though looking at current events, I'm reminded that you should be careful what you wish for. Because sometimes you get it.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Flashback 2010: Here's one thing you didn't know about Mike Royko

      Sir Andrew Davis died Saturday. The renown conductor and music director steered the Lyric Opera through challenging times for two decades. I of course had reason to talk with him over the years, and figure this piece, about an unexpected connection between a certain  gruff columnist and opera, might merit sharing. What stands out, 14 years later, is that in 2010 the Lyric could put on "The Mikado,"  which would never happen today — cultural appropriation, etc. I'm fairly certain the unnamed colleague was Albert Dickens, the well-loved sports department assistant. We talked about opera all the time, and I miss him, and miss that whole era where one went to a place regularly and found interesting people there.

     Now and then, a reader will try to compress all my flaws into one sharp jab. "You're no Mike Royko," he'll say, meaning that I am not a Chicago born and bred tough guy writing the universally acclaimed best column in the city.
     And I always surprise him with cheery agreement — yes indeedy, I'm no Royko, nobody's Royko, it's impossible for anyone to be Royko ever again and, having somewhat known Royko and thus vaguely familiar with all that being Royko entailed, I'd prefer to carry my own load than his. Thank you.
Non-Royko and son heading boldly to the 
Lyric in 2010 to hear "Macbeth."
     For instance, by not being a tough guy, I have no tough-guy image to maintain. Thus I am free to go to Opening Night at the Lyric Opera, as I did Friday, to hear Verdi's "Macbeth," done up in my poncy tuxedo and froufy silk bow tie and twee gold studs, and not have to worry about shocking anybody.
     Royko, meanwhile, was captive to his legend. He had to keep a secret, which, with the opera season under way and him gone lo these many years, I now feel free to divulge: Mike Royko loved opera.
     "Dad was a classical music fan, and passionate about it," said his son, David Royko. "While there were columns alluding to that, it wasn't something that fit his image."
     Royko was a Lyric season-ticket holder.
     "He was a serious fan of opera, of operas that he liked," said Royko. "He had strong opinions about the opera. I remember him reaming out Carol Fox, director of Lyric Opera in the '70s. There was a premiere of a Penderecki work, 'Paradise Lost,' this incredibly atonal, difficult stuff to sit through. And was saying, 'Why don't these guys produce ''Porgy and Bess''?' He was just revolted by Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.' He thought it was absurd, a spaghetti western with cowboy hats."
     Which brings us to a little-known truth about opera: You don't have to like everything. In fact, it's certain you won't. Just as booing butterfingered infielders is part of being a fan at Wrigley Field, one of the joys of opera is scorning stuff you don't like.
     Earlier this year, I was at the press conference announcing this season's lineup — "barnburners" like Bizet's "Carmen" and Wagner's "Lohengrin," but more obscure works like Handel's "Hercules" and froth such as Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado."
     The opera press present fell like wolves upon the selections, which were either too popular or too obscure. Didn't you just do "Carmen" five years ago, somebody asked.
     And then there was "The Mikado" — not a proper opera at all, but a comic operetta and sung in English at that.
Sir Andrew Davis
(photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera)
     "I know there are folks who don't think we should be doing that," said Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric conductor. "But if you're going to do 'Fledermaus' and going to do 'The Merry Widow,' why not? I think the music has depths and I intend to bring them out."
     One reporter asked a question I'm sure many subscribers wonder about: Why not just fill the schedule with all-time favorites?
     "We do have an obligation to do new work," Davis explained.
     At first that struck me as eat-your-peas pedantry — art as duty. It's an entertainment, I thought, plagued by memories of Berg's "Wozzeck." Why assume airs? Put the slop where the pigs can get at it.
     But you can't discover you love something until you hear it — I had never heard of Franz Lehar until I saw "The Merry Widow" last year — now my kids play it on on the stereo. Every opera has its fans.
     For instance; I dutifully listened to CDs of "Macbeth," getting ready for the performance. Hmmm, I thought. Opening night was swell — I dragged my 13-year-old linebacker along, and he pronounced it "very good."
     So now we're in the newsroom, and I'm trying to explain my cool reaction to a colleague. "Let's put it this way," I said. "There are 12 Verdi operas in my copy of Henry W. Simon's 100 Great Operas, and 'Macbeth' isn't one of them. I just don't like the music."
     Which prompted another colleague to leap to its defense, literally standing up.
     "You don't like 'Macbeth'!?" he said, incredulous. "It's one of my favorite operas — I have it on my iPod. I can't wait to go."
     And he started to hum the overture.
     One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Like life, opera has highs and lows; you can't spend every minute with your hands folded over your sternum, drowning in bliss.
     Do you find "The Mikado" lightweight? I think it's both hysterically funny and tuneful and am taking 100 readers to its first night for my annual opera sweepstakes.
       Darn, out of room again. Circle Dec. 6 on your calendar, and I'll explain how to win tickets in my column Friday.
     — First published in the Sun-Times, October 6, 2010

Monday, April 22, 2024

Playing in the high school marching band makes you 'part of something bigger'


Morgan Park High School music teacher Steven Schnall, left, guides 8th graders Khaliah Lastic (center) and Jaydah Keefer as they practice their trumpets.

     Lunch begins third period in Morgan Park High School, which might sound odd, since the bell sounds at 9:25 a.m. Students use the time to eat, study, or in the case of Khaliah Lastic and Jaydah Keefer, both 14, both 8th graders, both friends, to slide by the band room with their trumpets for a little practice.
     "B flat scale, let's do it," says music teacher Steven Schnall, who plays 13 instruments and has a doctorate in jazz from the University of Illinois.
     They play.
     "Good, good, excellent job," he says, when they finish. "When you get to the higher notes, make sure you're supporting just as much as on the bottom notes." Then, snapping his fingers to set a tempo. "One, two ready go..."
     If you read the Sunday paper, you might have seen my column on how trumpets are made. The story began with a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Richard Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra," with principal trumpeter Esteban Batallán playing the first three notes, CGC, made famous in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
     I originally thought it would be a fine thing if the story that began with one of the great musicians in the world ended with students just learning to play.
     But getting to know Lastic, looking smart in her ROTC uniform — 5,444 CPS students are in JROTC — and Keefer, with her purple dreadlocks, made it impossible to confine the South Side teens to a stylistic flourish in the last few paragraphs of a long story about making trumpets.
     "My dad played it in high school," said Lastic, playing a Horton B-flat trumpet, explaining why she took up the instrument.
    "My friend was in it, and I really wanted to join her," said Keefer, who has been playing a Blessing Scholastic for about six months."I thought it would be really cool to try to learn something new..."
     Plus playing a trumpet is a way to stand out.
     "So I can flex on people," Keefer said, as her friend laughed. "I really like the idea of being part of something bigger. I'm glad I chose this instrument. It's hard, but if you put in the work, it's worth it."

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

A great trumpet is 'a thing of beauty, an extension of you'

Esteban Batallan (photo by Todd Rosenberg for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)

     It begins with a low, barely audible rumble. The double basses, contrabassoon and pipe organ of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra groan out a sustained double C. Then Esteban Batallán, principal trumpet of the CSO, raises his 1955 Vincent Bach "Mount Vernon" C Trumpet, serial number 13959, to his lips and plays three of the most famous notes in classical music: middle C, then a fifth higher, G, then the next higher C, completing the octave. The "nature motif" of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30" which Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" branded into the public mind.
     The rest of the orchestra joins in, the timpani pounding underneath, and away they go. When Strauss's "tone poem" ends, about 24 minutes later, and the full house at Orchestra Hall erupts into applause, it is Batallán whom guest conductor Jakub Hrůša points to before anyone else, for the honor of taking the first bow.
     When he is not playing, Batallán occasionally shakes his trumpet — getting out the spit — "I like my trumpet very very clean," he says, later — and gazes down at it, quizzically, touching parts of it. A trumpet has four slides — small adjustable sections of tubing. "For the audience, it's imperceptible," said Batallán. "For me, I'm really sensitive with intonation, so I keep myself fine tuning all the time."
     Batallán has had a trumpet in his hands so long — since age 6 — that his pinkies curl involuntarily when he tries to hold his fingers straight. This particular instrument was played for a quarter-century before he was born, by Adolph "Bud" Herseth, the CSO's principal trumpeter for 53 years.
     "It's a very famous trumpet," says Mark Dulin, artist representative for Conn-Selmer, the country's largest manufacturer of brass instruments. "It has a really great sound. But that trumpet is from 1955. It's worn out. The valves have been redone five times."
     The violin played later that evening is nearly 300 years old. Trumpets can't last nearly that long, because of the stress of valves being pressed, rust caused by saliva coursing through the tubing, even a musician's sweat, which will peel the finish off a horn. Batallán's trumpet was in a batch of 11 crafted by Vincent Bach, the master trumpet maker, at his prime in 1955.
     "These trumpets have been studied for a long time," said John Hagstrom, CSO second trumpet. "Just like Stradivarius violins, they're reverse-engineered, trying to find out: what makes them so great?"
In search of sound
     "Everyone has tried in some shape or form to replicate these instruments," said Michael Sachs, principal trumpet of the Cleveland Orchestra. "While some have come close, nobody has been able to replicate that sound."
     Other trumpet companies, such as Yamaha, have tried. Now Conn-Selmer is giving it a go, consulting Batallán, Hagstrom, Sachs and others. They see the marketing opportunity here.
     "These are great instruments but there are just a few of them," said Hagstrom. "Everybody would like them, but they don't exist. There would be a great business advantage if you could build them again. They are striving to do that."

To continue reading, click here.

Jim Gwinn buffs a trombone at the Vincent Bach factory in Elkhart, Indiana.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Flashback 1991: Summer's last spring


   Richard Roeper's review of "We Grown Now" mentioned kids dragging a mattress out of Cabrini Green to use it to cushion their acrobatics. Sparking a memory. Bob Davis and I used to drive around the city, creating photo essays on whatever we could find. We noticed these boys, and got busy. The newspaper gave it a full page. Those were good days.

     Late afternoon on a golden summer day. A vacant lot at Elizabeth and 63rd Street, kitty-corner from a boarded-up skating rink.
     One rusted box spring. Two old mattresses. Seven young boys. "We're best friends," says Brandon Kinsey. The boys line up, racing full speed toward the mattresses. They spring into the air. Flipping, flying, turning somersaults.
     They call themselves the "Junior Jesse White Tumblers" after the famous group that performs everywhere in the city and beyond.
     The L rumbles by.
     Brandon sits at the edge of a mattress, his arms spread straight out. He faces the others, casting a long shadow. One by one they leap over him, landing, returning for yet another go.
     Suddenly the kids scatter. "We gotta go home now," shouts Brandon as they head down the alley, west toward the setting sun.
        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 30, 1991 

Friday, April 19, 2024

Chicago was once the heart of country music

     Loretta Lynn hugged me. In her dressing room in Reno. After I had sent the country singer two dozen roses to say there were no hard feelings.
     More about that later.
     Country music gets the short shrift up North. People like me who enjoy it — who've been to the Grand Ole Opry and seen Montgomery Gentry, twice — tend to be on the down-low on the subject. Maybe we're embarrassed to defend our affections. For me, it's the honest human emotion. I don't have a daughter, but Ashley McBride's "Light on in the Kitchen" still chokes me up. Admitting that is off brand, I suppose.
     It shouldn't be, not in Chicago. For all the talk of Chicago as home to the blues, to jazz, and even to house music, we somehow rarely get around to talking about our rich country music heritage. Rich and deep — the WLS National Barn Dance, which predated the Opry by two years, was first broadcast 100 years ago Friday, on April 19, 1924.
     If you haven't read Mark Guarino's "Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival," it's a richly-researched, utterly fascinating revelation, from the Barn Dance to Ernest Tubb coining the term "Country and Western," in 1947 at the prodding of "a record man from Chicago," trying to escape the confines of "hillbilly music."
     The program was the center of country for decades, drawing all sorts of stars. Gene Autry lived in Aurora . Bill Monroe recorded "Blue Moon of Kentucky" at the Wrigley Building. In the 1920s, Chicago mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson was known as "the cowboy mayor" for his Stetson hat and Nebraska ranch, and once rode a horse into the City Council chambers. We've gone from that to a mayor who can't hold an impromptu conversation.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Flashback 1991: Win Stracke dies — folk singer was a pioneer in kids' TV

Win Stracke

   I'm reading Mark Guarino's excellent "Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival" — more about that in my column Friday — and when he got to the founding of the Old Town School of Folk Music, and Win Stracke, I found myself thinking, "Wait a sec ... I think I wrote his obit." Thirty three years ago. As to why that would stick in mind, I'm not sure. His unusual name, maybe. Or the fact that I spoke with Studs Terkel about him. I would draw your attention to the name of the contributing writer at the end: Mary A. Johnson. That was the future Mary Mitchell. 

     Win Stracke, 83, troubadour  and co-founder of the Old Town School of Folk Music, died Saturday at his home in the North Shore Hotel in Evanston.
     For decades, Mr. Stracke, a big, deep-voiced, gentle-humored balladeer, was an important presence on the Chicago folk scene, performing his music on radio, television and the stage.
     Born in Lorraine, Kan., in 1908, he was the son of a German Baptist minister, Robert Stracke.
     The family moved to what became the 43rd Ward in 1909, and the elder Stracke served as minister at the church at Willow and Burling.
     Later, Mr. Stracke immortalized the ward in a ballad about its wild politics and colorful politicians.
     Win Stracke began singing at his father's church and soon became a soloist at other churches.
     During World War II, he served in an Army anti-aircraft battery in Europe, carrying his guitar through six overseas campaigns, playing his folk songs for troops.
     With the advent of television, he performed in what were known as Chicago School TV shows. He had a running role on the "Studs Place" show, the "Hawkins Falls" soap opera, "The Garroway Show," and his own children's shows, "Animal Playtime" and "Time for Uncle Win."
     Mr. Stracke's soft wit and gentle presence made him ideal for children's television.
     "Let's see," Mr. Stracke told his audience in an early "Animal Playtime" show, which made its debut in March, 1953. "Let's sing about animals that we like. What kind do you like?"
     Pausing for a second, he gazed directly at the camera and at his young viewers. Then he brightened. "Dogs? Why sure, we all like dogs, don't we? Now. . . ," and he began strumming a simple song about dogs, one of thousands of folk songs he composed.
     "He pushed other people into loving music," said Dawn Greening, who helped Mr. Stracke start the Old Town School of Folk Music. "He shared his love for the music with everybody, I just remember where I first heard him sing; one of the places was the Gate of Horn. I just thought he was really wonderful."
     When "Animal Playtime" was canceled in 1954, thousands of mothers — who appreciated Mr. Stracke's mixture of lively songs with lessons about animals — mounted an angry crusade that led to the show's reinstatement.
     "You can say Win was Chicago's Bard because of the songs he sang," said Studs Terkel, who called Mr. Stracke his "oldest friend."
     "Win was a friend of blues singers, folk singers, everybody. He sang in picket lines when the CIO was organized. He was there whenever there was difficulties at picket lines. He was a stalwart."
       Mr. Stracke "was the figure that brought together social action, the love of tradition and really good fun," said Stuart Rosenberg, a local musician, songwriter and WBEZ radio show host.
       "There is a whole generation of singers and songwriters who looked to Win for their first inspiration. He was a unique figure in that he related to everyone."
      In 1957, Mr. Stracke began the Old Town School of Folk Music with Greening, Frank Hamilton and Gertrude Soltker. Begun with one teacher and 20 students, the school helped make Chicago a center of folk singing.
     "The whole idea is to give people who love folk music a chance to participate rather than to just listen," Mr. Stracke said at the time. "This interest in folk music by city people betrays their search for the basic realities which they don't find expressed in commercial popular music."
     Mr. Stracke was a member of the Civil War Round Table and the Chicago Historical Society. He wrote the words to "Freedom Country," a 23-minute cantata celebrating the Illinois sesquicentennial in 1967.
     For the last 20 years he had been retired, living for seven years in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, then returning to the United States to live in Fort Collins, Colo., until three years ago, when he returned to Chicago.
     Survivors include two daughters, Jane Bradbury and Barbara Pavey, and two grandchildren.
     Services were pending.
     Contributing: Mary A. Johnson

      — Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 30, 1991 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Hay as happiness, beauty and freedom at Joffrey's 'Midsummer Night's Dream'

Photo by Carolyn McCabe for the Joffrey Ballet

     Noon one day last week found 45 of the fittest young people on the planet — dancers with the Joffrey Ballet — lying on their backs in the company's Loop rehearsal space, on a floor covered with what looks like hay.
     Swedish contemporary music plays. Suddenly they leap up and scatter, running in all directions, flinging the hay at each other, while a big hay wheel is rolled in. Two dancers leap atop it and perform a kind of courtship gavot.
     Welcome to the dress rehearsal of "Midsummer Night's Dream," opening next week at the Lyric Opera House. Despite its name, the ballet has nothing to do with either the Shakespeare play or George Balanchine's 1962 ballet. Rather, this is Alexander Ekman's joyful solstice frolic.
     A glance at the prop list gives an idea of the production's whimsy. Along with 45 flower crowns, 40 umbrellas, 40 wooden chairs, 40 wine glasses, two bicycles and a hand-held fish — not to be confused with the wooden herring; this is a Scandinavian entertainment, after all — at the very end, in bold-face so as not to be missed, is:
     "Hay: 1100 pounds total."
     "It's actually raffia," said stage manager Mandy Heuermann. "Haylike, but much less allergenic. It's flame-treated, to make sure it's safe, since we basically cover the whole stage floor with it."
     Real hay might also impale the dancers, who are barefoot and are experienced at performing in clouds of various types.
     "The dancers are pretty accustomed to dealing with atmosphere," said principal stage manager Katherine Selig. "We use fog, we use smoke, we use haze. They're used to it; it's just part of the job."

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The comfy chair!

     Sunday was a beautiful day to be in Chicago, walking down Halsted Street from Montrose to Belmont. Clear blue skies, temperature in the 70s. It seemed all of Boystown was out, and the bars had their windows flung open and people could be seen in the dimness within, gathered in groups, eating and drinking.
     The entire experience was a reminder that, sometimes, if you do something kind for someone, it rebounds well. I hadn't begun the day planning to spend an hour strolling city streets — the plan was to help our future daughter-in-law pack to move into a new condo. Well, my wife's plan — she has the glassware packing skills, from her years at Mindscape Gallery in Evanston. I was there to drive, provide moral support, do what packing I could, and lift heavy things. I felt a little bad, to be spending the glorious day indoors. But duty is duty.
    Noon came and went, but by 2:30 p.m. lunch was suggested and I did not argue. I was good with wherever anybody wanted to go, and that turned out to be the Momo Factory, a Nepalese dumpling place at Broadway and Belmont. It's a mile and a quarter away, my soon-to-be-relative explains. Were we good for that? We were.
     So packing morphed into a leisurely stroll through a city full of young people. We passed spots we used to know, and chatted on the changes — this spot is now that. Yoshi's Cafe is closed, recently enough there is a note on the door, re-directing mail. We had a nice dinner there once.
     I of course thought about all those Floridian cops cringing and damning Chicago as some kind of hellscape, when — on Sunday at least, through these neighborhoods — it was about as inviting and happy as a place can be. We cut down Melrose, the block where my wife used to live, and I pointed out the balcony from her place.
     At one point we saw the chair above, and I noticed that rather than give it away, someone had put a QR code, asking for $15, which is not bad for a second-hand office chair. (And a "Comfy chair!" at that — could that be a sly Monty Python reference? Or did those stop decades ago?) 
     Like a farmer setting out eggs at a wooden stand on a countryside road, my future daughter-in-law observed. With a slotted box for a few dollars. Only we weren't in the trusting heartland, I thought, but on the mean streets of Chicago. Maybe not so mean after all.
      What charmed me was the owner's hope that whoever wanted the chair would take the time to convey the money, as opposed to just take the chair. Plus the modern Venmo twist. That expectation of decency, of honor. Not to be pollyannaish about it. But one person in Chicago thought there was some slight chance that a random person in need of a second-hand chair would both take it and throw some money their way. There was something sweet about that. Or maybe I was just in a hopeful mood.

Monday, April 15, 2024

'Messy, imperfect, awkward, beautiful, these people'

"Marsha," 2023, watercolor and charcoal on paper, 45x36, by Lisa Edelstein.

     My parents are on the move again. After two years at an assisted living facility in Buffalo Grove, it's down to Addison to a smaller place that better suits their needs. Moving means packing, and once more my wife and I boxed up their dwindling possessions — far fewer than when they left Boulder in 2022 — weeding out what can't make the transition from three rooms to one.
     "How about this?" my wife said, holding up a round metal 1950s cookie tin. "Photos."
     "Throw it away," replied my mother. She never even looked inside.
     The past burdens and buoys us, holding us back and driving us forward, like stunned survivors wandering across a minefield. The moment I clapped eyes on Lisa Edelstein's paintings, my first thought was "Jewish unease." The awkwardness of one's own relatives, frozen in the garish 1970s. The lucky few who somehow made it from Lodz to Levittown. They call to us, in their thin, wavering voices, from beyond the grave, or its lip. A hard tin to throw away, and Edelstein has taken her family Kodachromes and transformed them into evocative paintings.
     "I love finding the in-between shots, the poorly posed, the awkward, the strange angles, even damaged photos or film stills," said Edelstein, an actor you might know as Dr. Cuddy in "House." "Taking these unvalued shots and blowing the images up into carefully rendered paintings, celebrating them that way — there’s so much life and story and discomfort that gets exposed."
     Edelstein's work has to be viewed through the fog of anti-Semitism, always a haze in society but billowing up even more after six months of the war in Gaza. Not the easiest moment to be Jewish, never mind examine the out-of-placeness of our tribe.
     "Yes, this is a wildly fraught time to be Jewish, which is absolutely part of why I am making these paintings," said Edelstein, whose husband, Robert Russell, is also an artist. "Robert and I have gone to countless art shows over the 14 years we’ve been together, and we’ve seen a lot of identity-based work. All of the various identities were demanding representation within the larger human story. And not just representation — celebration. But not Jews. Where are the Jews?"

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Gail Wise bought the first Ford Mustang sold in the United States; 60 years later, she still owns it


     In the spring of 1964, Gail Wise taught third grade at Sunnyside Elementary School in Berkeley, Illinois, a small suburb just east of Elmhurst. She was still Gail Brown then, loved her job, but it was a dozen miles south from where she lived with her parents in Park Ridge.
     "Back then you lived at home until you got married," she remembered. 
     At 22 years old, she couldn't expect to drive her parents' car forever. She needed her own.
     So on Wednesday, April 15, 1964, she and her father went to Johnson Ford on Cicero Avenue in Chicago — her family always drove Fords. Her father had driven a '57 Fairlane 500, then a '63 Thunderbird.
     "My parents always drove a convertible," she said. "I just knew I wanted a convertible."
     But there were no convertibles on the showroom floor. When the salesman saw Brown's disappointment, he took pity on her, and said they had something special in back. They weren't supposed to sell it yet, but she could take a look. He pulled a tarp off a Mustang convertible in "Skylight Blue." No Mustangs would officially go on sale for two days, until after it was unveiled at the New York World's Fair on April 17. If she wanted this one, she'd have to buy it without a test drive. She did want it. 
     "I just fell in love. It was sporty. It had the bucket seats, the transmission on the floor," she said. "He started it up. It went zoom zoom and made that nice, loud noise. I was just so excited to buy it. I was in heaven. I told the salesman it was for me."
     Some aspects of the car might surprise today — the Mustang had seat belts in the front seats but not the back. The passenger seat could not be adjusted. Back-up lights were optional.
     The price was $3,447.50. Her salary was $5,000 a year. Her father loaned her the money.
     Making Gail Wise the first person in the United States to buy a Ford Mustang — 60 years ago on Monday.
     "When I drove out of the showroom, nobody had seen this car yet," she recalled. "Everybody was waving at me, asking me to slow down, so they could see this car. I felt like a movie star. I was very happy. I drove it to school the next day. All those boys, the seventh and eighth graders, were hovering over it."
     She drove that Mustang for 15 years. She married Tom Wise, an electronics technician who worked on the guidance system on a nuclear submarine in the Navy, in 1966. The couple moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Their four kids arrived, and she gave up teaching.
     "When you were married, you started a family and stayed home with the children," she said.

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Flashback 1995: "Ito unlikely to leave, experts say."

A courtroom scene, by José Guadalupe Posada (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     O.J. Simpson's body had scarcely begun to singe in hell before readers wondered when I'd be weighing in on the subject. Never, I hope. I hated the case while it was going on, the omnipresence, the sensationalism. Plus I wasn't yet a columnist, so only wrote about it as an assignment, covering some local reaction to a trial development. I wouldn't share this except for Northwestern professor Dan Polsby's sharp closing quote, which is worthy of remembrance. Polsby left NU in 1999 and joined 
Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, retiring in 2020.

     Chicago legal experts regard the possibility of Judge Lance Ito stepping down from the O.J. Simpson trial as just the latest bit of empty theater in a trial that seems to grow stranger and stranger. Few think he will declare a mistrial.
     "Given the investment that everybody has in the trial, I seriously doubt he will" recuse himself, said Dan Polsby, a professor of law at Northwestern University Law School.
     Questions of a judge's possible conflict of interest are rare, and usually are settled without the judge stepping down. Ito did disqualify himself Tuesday from ruling on the tapes of Mark Fuhrman insulting Ito's wife.
     "Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the first trial in history," said Tom Scorza, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "Many times problems develop between a judge and a given witness, particularly a police witness."
     Typically, in matters of bias the judge is concerned with how an appeals court will view a situation, Scorza said. But a Simpson appeal based on bias is unlikely because the judge's possible bias is against a prosecution witness. If Simpson is found guilty, to argue the judge was biased against a witness whose testimony helped convict him doesn't make sense. And if he is found not guilty, there is no need to appeal.
     Area lawyers tend to be critical of Ito, who they say should never have let Fuhrman's racial beliefs become part of the trial.
     "Let's assume he is a racist: So what?" said Patricia Bobb, a trial lawyer and former prosecutor. "Does that establish the fact he planted evidence? The law of evidence is you can't impeach people on collateral matters. Ito is facing a problem he created."
     Bobb said perhaps having Ito step down might not be such a bad thing.
     Northwestern's Dan Polsby seems to agree.
     "This trial is a scale model of eternity," he said. "The O.J. Simpson case looks like it's going to go on until the heat death of the universe."
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 16, 1995