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

Friday, April 12, 2024

Bumped to Sunday

DALL-E AI program
      No column in the paper today. I asked if the column could run a little long — okay, almost twice as long — in order to unspool a sweet story I thought needed  room to stretch its legs, and my editors bumped it to Sunday, where there's more real estate to fill. 
     A very 20th century, black-ink-on-dead trees concern. Although if I've learned anything in writing, it's that your hindrances are also benefits, and as vexing as it can be to cram your thoughts into a set space, doing so does encourage concision. I write my column in Blogger, which through some odd quirk has no word count function — maybe because online you have no limits. Online you can ramble on for as long as you like. Online, the idea that few are following you to the end because you're such a prolix bastard might never cross your mind.  Online, you can just say the same thing, over and over and...
     Sorry. Where was I? When I finish drafting my column in Blogger, and go to put it in BrightSpot, the latest platform the paper dredged up somewhere to compose our work upon, I'm always happy to see it's 850 or 900 or 1,000 words. That means I can then tighten the thing up to 750, 760 tops, the word count to park myself on page two. Without any loss whatsoever. Just the opposite: it's an improvement. Shorter is better. Back when I used to speak to students, I always told them, if they want to ace any assignment, just write it twice as long as the assigned length, then cut it in half. They reward me with boggled, yeah-that's-never-happening expressions.
    In honor of the above, I just cut out the next 10 lines of exposition. Trust me, you'll never miss it.
    When BrightSpot was rolled out, the biggest change was that I could no longer correct errors and simply post the new version. I had to find an editor to do it for me. Which was an earthquake, to me, because I'm always finding mistakes in past columns. I called the editor and begged her — truly beseeched, voice quavering — to let me post corrections. It was pathetic, and she said no. Basically, a control thing, and the kindergarten teacher view of staff — if we let Johnny do it, then we have to let everybody do it. Because we're all the same. When in fact, I always took the night shift employee's proprietary view of the place. At 1 a.m. the office is often empty, and you can go nap on the sofa in the editor-in-chief's office.
     For all its flaws, BrightSpot does work. Last week Facebook served up my Neenah foundry story from two years ago, and I reread it and noticed that I talk about "slats" in manhole covers when I meant "slits." Four times. Quite a lot really. The mistake flew past me, while carefully writing it, and all the editors carefully reading it, and every reader over the past two years — or none who wrote in pointing out the flub. So I created a new draft, replacing "slats" with "slits," called up a night editor and had him post it for me. Then checked to make sure it had actually happened, because with BrightSpot, you never know. Correcting errors that nobody else noticed in a story two years old. That's a good thing, I think. Unless it isn't. Anyway, fun column coming Sunday. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024


    Assessing reality is my stock-in-trade. I can't afford to let illusions and ego guide me. Thus it's natural for me to acknowledge just what a small pile of pebbles I've managed to accumulate in my life. Humility comes easy; it's not only true, but useful. I'm proud that, in Friday's column about hot honey pizza, I could disgorge a paragraph like this one:

It's so obvious, now — you splash hot sauce on chicken; you pour honey. But it never occurred to me to combine the two. That's why some men run growing $40 million companies — Mike's Hot Honey is on the menu in 3,000 restaurants and sold in 30,000 retail establishments nationwide — and some are wage slaves jammed onto the No. 36 bus going up State Street, excited at the prospect of free pizza.

   If I asked you, what about that paragraph would prompt you to write in, aggrieved, I bet you would be hard-pressed to find the flaw to criticize. No so Chris S., who wrote:

Noticed in your writing you like to boast about yourself whether it’s how you used to get included at Gene & Georgetti’s political luncheon and now free pizza for this.

You should try some manual labor (ya know a real job where you actually produce something) and not just a bunch of hot air about a bunch of smorgasbord bullshit funded by a non for profit organization backed by JB Pritzker.

You’re one of the great hack writers of your era with little to no insight in Chicago newspapers. You’re legacy amounts to an article your colleagues will write that will be forgotten in tomorrows paper when the new headlines roll out.

    Usually I'd shrug that kind of thing off without reply. But I felt extra generous. He was obviously a reader — the Gene & Georgetti reference was from a column on Jay Doherty that ran three months ago. Plus he was criticizing me over something for which I am actually proud. It was so vituperative, plus grammatically spotty ("you're legacy," "tomorrows paper") that getting angry didn't seem an option — he was mad enough for the both of us. So I read his remarks again, thought carefully, and replied this way:


         No argument here. Thanks for writing.


     Most people are actually pretty nice. Even hateful trolls — that sounds odd, but I find that if you meet the nastiest remark with a dollop of kindness, the person in question dissolves in a puddle of gratitude. Hurt people hurt people, but they coo at a touch. I realized long ago that the psycho who writes me a dozen hateful emails a day also, in his topsy-turvy world, really likes me, and wants my attention, like a schoolboy pulling a girl's pigtails.
    He replied:

    lol no problem. I’m just jealous

    I did pause at the lol — "laughing out loud." Right wing haters are always laughing — trying to show their indifference and superiority, in a kind of "look at them Siegfrid, they're just ants" fashion. Anything that confuses them is deemed funny. It's a cover.  I could have left it there, but I was on a roll, and replied to his reply:

     No worries. I have a great life. A little jealousy is understandable.

     Not something I ever actually come out and say much. But true, nevertheless.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

A thing happened at a place, maybe.

                        "Yet why not say what happened?"  
                                              — Robert Lowell

     The tiniest detail can reveal something bad. A strangely-shaped freckle . The crack in the foundation, spreading.
     A small story popped up at the end of last week and was forgotten. The Museum of Science and Industry abruptly closed last Wednesday afternoon, sending visitors home "as staff moves military artifacts from archival storage" to allow a bit of "unplanned maintenance."
     "Out of an abundance of caution, and to ensure proper and safe removal, we have specially trained military personnel as well as local officials on-site," the museum statement read.
     What does that mean? "Military artifacts?" They aren't talking about old uniforms and mess kits. That has to be ... what? Hand grenades? Unexploded shells? What else requires "specially trained military personnel" to handle? You don't bring in the Army to remove a canteen.
     I waited for updates. Nothing.
     Fine. I'm a reporter, I'll do it. I phoned and emailed Museum of Science and Industry spokesperson Kelsey Ryan.
     Hours passed. I called its current president, Chevy Humphrey. When she arrived in 2021, the newspaper sent me to greet her with the big hurrah-for-Dr.-Humphrey profile. She had no trouble talking, then, about the new “Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes” exhibit. Surely she'd explain what happened now.
     "Chevy doesn't take phone calls" said the MSI receptionist. I waved the Sun-Times like a paper flag and she put me through to her voicemail. Nothing.
     Okay, work the other side of the story, the "special trained military personnel" and "local officials." Who could that be? I called with the U.S. Army. It wasn't them. I put in the ritual calls to the Chicago police and fire departments — crickets chirping in a field. I texted Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois Secretary of State. His office has its own bomb squad.
     Giannoulias is old school, in that he still believes in an open democracy where information is freely shared. He got back immediately, reminding me that the world where we're heading — a world where major Chicago institutions abruptly eject visitors and shut their doors, calling in unspecified military units to cope with unnamed threats — is also a world where libraries that dare feature books about a penguin with two dads receive bomb threats. Twenty-two in Illinois last summer alone. He described HB 4567, passed out of house committee last Thursday, to better protect libraries against being silenced by people who, like the MSI, are allergic to the unfettered flow of information.
     “Our librarians and libraries have faced an onslaught of threats of violence and ideological intimidation for simply serving their communities,” said Giannoulias, who also serves as State Librarian. “We have seen an escalation of violence seeking to censor and restrict information."
     His office pointed me toward the U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Group.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

"The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured"

     "Go to Target, get yourself a pair of glasses," ordered my wife, bustling in the kitchen Monday morning, getting ready to leave for work.
     "So you read my column ...?" I ventured.
     "No," she said. Maybe she heard me in the basement, clattering around. 
     "The next time there's an eclipse, we'll be dead," she explained. "Go to Target and get glasses."
     I don't recall her ever saying something like that, the "next time this happens we'll be dead" formation. I'm not sure I like it.
     Though it is true. The next eclipse in the Chicago area is Sept. 14, 2099. So yes, long dead and forgotten. You too.
I tucked away everything from the 2017
eclipse, including the Saluki-shaped fan.
Except the glasses; I'm not sure why.
     Even as I was writing "Skip the eclipse" column (and yes, I was proud of the little interior rhyme) I could feel my mood shifting. First because I could tell there was something unspoken underneath it. A buried Something Else. And I knew what. I file things, quite methodically, and assumed that I'd tucked the 2017 eclipse stuff away. But couldn't lay my hands on it just yet. I hated buying a new pair of glasses when I still had the old ones., somewhere. Frugal to a fault. 
 I searched drawers, files.
     Screw it. My wife's instructions gave a bit of steel in my spine. I'm good at following directions. Just past 8 a.m. I strolled over to Ace Hardware. No eclipse glasses. So I drove over to Target. No glasses. 
     I was just about resigned to construct some crude viewing device out of a cereal box, when a thought bubbled up that should have occurred to me at the start. I might be solitary, but I am not in fact alone. I emailed three neighbors. Surely they were on top of this who eclipse situation. No response. I headed over the Y to work out before lunch, and driving back down our block, found a knot of neighbors standing in a driveway across the street. I lowered a window. They'd texted me back, and had already gathered three special eclipse glasses and two types of cookies, and their own homemade viewing device, which didn't really work, plus a dog, adding energy. They'd organized the whole thing down to the minute: come back at 1:35 p.m. I told them I would return in ten minutes.
     We tramped over to the public library — in my backyard —  where more Northbrookites had assembled, to view the wonder en masse. We set ourselves up across the field — soccer in summer, ice hockey in winter — because we were going to be joined by one of my neighbor's daughters, a high school senior, and her boyfriend. Maybe we all shared my unspoken tendency to want to be near others but not necessarily in the main scrum. Music was produced — Bonnie Tyler, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," natch, and "You're So Vain" ("You flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia, to see the total eclipse of the sun...") Conversation ensued, though I did not mention Shakespeare's Sonnet 107, which begins, "Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul/Of the wide world dreaming on things to come," and includes a line that almost projects my initial discomfiture onto one of the heavenly bodies involved, "The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured/And the sad augurs mock their own presage."
    That last line means that grim worries are ridiculed by their very direness when "Incertainties now crown themselves assur'd." 
     In other words: don't get stressed. Stuff works out. I saw the eclipse — in a better situation than I could have imagined, at first, with friends, eating homemade macrons. I didn't go blind. "And peace proclaims olives of endless age." Not sure what that means, but it sounds nice.
     As much as I tried to fix in mind the moments I observed the bright orange crescent sun gobbled up by the pitch black moon — this would never happen again, not to me anyway — that wasn't really the memorable part. The eclipse had been so fussed over, culturally, but really didn't seem all that significant, not compared to the pleasant company of my neighbors. There's no marvel in the sky like others showing up, earthbound though we be, the happiness of someone having your back when you think that you're on your own.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Skip the eclipse (or don't)

In 2017, visitors to Carbondale paid $25 apiece to look up in Saluki Stadium.

     "Turkey in the Straw" is a terrible song. Grating, plodding, particularly when plinked out on a toy piano. It's also an old minstrel tune, to add an extra layer of offensiveness.
     And yet it moves me. In summertime, as I hear the sound, or, even worse, "Pop Goes the Weasel," dopplering toward me, and some powerful primal urge makes me want to grab money — well, really run to my mother and beg her to give me 50 cents, but that isn't a possibility — then rush outside to buy a Blue Ribbon Chocolate Eclair bar from the ice cream truck. You have to hurry, or you're going to miss it. By the time you hear the music, your chance is already passing by. I don't even like Chocolate Eclair bars, not being eight anymore. No matter. Now is the moment to act.
     I call that reaction — the urge to grab something you don't even want because your window of opportunity is limited —"The Ice Cream Truck Reflex," and it's a useful term to remember when confronting any rare, fleeting event, such as this damn solar eclipse Monday afternoon, which I am hoping to muster the strength to avoid, and I am giving you permission to miss, too.
     First, been there, done that. In August 2017 I drove down to Carbondale — with my entire family in tow — and occupied a spartan dorm room at Schneider Hall, which Southern Illinois University charged us $800 for three nights in classic soak-the-strangers fashion. (A bargain, actually. The Carbondale Holiday Inn charged $550 a night). For the big moment, we jammed into Saluki Stadium — along with 14,000 other dupes — and kudos for SIU contriving to charge visitors $25 for the privilege of watching what they could see just as well for free by standing in the parking lot and looking up.
     Or not see. The day was cloudy. Though that, too, built up the tension, released during the 10 seconds or so when the clouds parted and we actually eyeballed the eclipse. What was it like? "Hot, sweaty, exciting to see bite out of r. side of sun," I noted in my journal. "V. dramatic."
     Was it worth three days? Plus that $800 dorm room, and the other expenses (paid for by the paper, true, but I was still offended, on its behalf).

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Sunday, April 7, 2024

On big words

     Regular readers know I sometimes deploy big words. Usually it's a natural process. When comparing two diverse elements, I call it a "juxtaposition." Happy chance is "serendipity." 
     Sometimes it's a little forced. When I was writing about the arrogant, the-truth-delivered-from-on-high air that Corning used in response to last Monday's column, I referred to their tone as "ex cathedra," Latin for "from the chair" — i.e., issuing from the pope on his throne in Rome. The word dredged from my deep knowledge of Latin, achieved from years of scholarship and study.
     Kidding. I was reading "Cave Canem: A Miscellany of Latin Words & Phrases" by Lorna Robinson while in the john, happened upon the word a few hours before writing the column, decided it was apt, and tucked it in.
    Writers are encouraged to avoid using big words. Hemingway sure didn't, to great effect. "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for." (A good refutation to those who suggest a sentence must never end with a proposition, even better than Churchill's apocryphal "Nonsense like this up with which I will not put."). 
     But there are three reasons to permit fancy terms to creep into your prose, in order of importance: 1) because no other word serves as well; 2) to show off your erudition; 3) to educate people. 
     Sometimes a longer word should be used because you've already described a certain thing in shorter words and you fear falling into grating repetition. After calling something "magic" a few times, "conjuring" or "prestidigitation" or even "legerdemain" are allowed to creep in. 
     Sometimes a word is too good not to share — "defenestration." The act of throwing someone out a window. Not the most useful word, outside of Putin's Russia, but still fascinating — to some of us — to know exists.
     Trying to impress people might be slightly shameful, but it does have value. Sometimes they are impressed, and think better of the author, which helps, I suppose, building brand loyalty. Look I'm smart! Hang around me!
      And there is true pleasure in learning new words — I think that's the best reason. Readers invariably like them — they write in to say they enjoyed looking up a recondite (difficult to understand) term. I don't think I've ever had someone write in, "Fuck you Steinberg with all your fancy words."  Which is significant, since I get reprimanded for about everything else (a reader complained that I had bragged about getting free pizza, an exchange so delicious I might post it next week).
     Though the other day, I did snatch back a sesquipedalia verba ("words a foot-and-a-half long.") Another term plucked out my deep knowledge and study of ... okay, also from "Cave Canum." Horace coined it to upbraid fellow poets who lard their verse with "verbose, obscure, lengthy words that didn't add anything to the poem."
     I was having fun, writing about Lou Malnati's hot honey pizza, and mentioned Burt's in Morton Grove, which is truly my absolute favorite pizza. I eat Lou Malnati's more, because it's excellent and there's a take-out place two blocks from my house. But Burt's is more of ... an occasion. You have to eat it there — the pie is best seconds from the oven. When the family went to Alinea, one of the best restaurants in the world, to celebrate the boys' graduations from college (the younger boy blew through school in three years so they graduated a month apart) my birthday came four days later, and we went to Burt's, which held its own against the 3-star Michelin experience.
     In describing the Burt's pie, I initially called it the "unspeakable tetragrammaton of pizzas." But "unspeakable," I immediately realized, has a quality of "so horrible you can't describe it," so I changed the word to "unsayable." Thus in the process of alteration, I considered that second word? The tetragrammaton is the unsayable four-letter name of God, יהוה‎, or YHVH in English. Pronouncing the Hebrew letters sounds like "yud hey vuv hey," which is where the rasta "Jah" comes from.
     Maybe I was feeling a certain loss of confidence. Over the weekend I typed in a 40-year-old column as a post — itself a step back from the high quality original journalism I like to present here — but neglected to read over my work, and so posted it with something like 20 typos in the text. I fixed it about 7 a.m., but 100 readers got the mangled version. It was embarrassing, particularly because only two thought this enough of a departure to complain. The others just shrugged and silently said to themselves, "Steinberg is slipping." So not quite in the position of authority to blithely unleash "tetragrammaton."
     I changed it to "pinnacle." Which isn't nearly as fun. When I mentioned the original to my wife, she laughed out loud, and I felt a pang that I had denied a chuckle to the dozens of readers who'd know what the word meant. My apologies for that. Some other time.*

* Actually, been there, done that. Five years ago I not only used it, but did so initially by making a pun on the word, which makes me worry that I'm writing this thing mostly for my own amusement. Which sounds about right, now that I think of it.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

Waaaaah! Your existence spoils my party!!!!

     Prejudice is a blend of ignorance and fear.
     That doesn't get said nearly enough.
     You're a stupid person, viewing the world through the keyhole of your own limited experience, and rather than assuage your terror at the unknown by learning something about it, you try to valorize your unease into a defining characteristic and lash out at the ooo-scary thing that's so frightening you.
     I just read "Biden’s Easter Day proclamation insults Christians while pandering to progressives" by Willie Wilson, the perennial mayoral candidate known for giving away free gasoline to poor Chicagoans. Like white right wingers, Wilson piles on President Joe Biden for issuing a proclamation recognizing International Transgender Day of Visibility, observed on March 31 for the past 15 years. Because this year, March 31 also happened to be Easter, and that day is owned by Christians and nobody else can do anything on it but observe their holiday.
     "Easter is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this day should be kept sacred," writes Wilson, adding: "Biden has a bully pulpit, and if he uses it to undercut Christianity, it could give citizens a license to move away from God. Any proclamation issued on Easter should be focused on strengthening the bond of our Judeo-Christian nation to God."
     This is bigotry on its face, and shame on the Chicago Tribune, or rather, its shell, for disseminating it. Not that Alden Capital will care. A ghoul who digs up corpses and sells the zinc extracted from them hardly cares how the body looks when they've finished. 
     Just in case it isn't plain, let's examine why Wilson's column is the definition of bigotry, in two important ways:
     First, his assumption that the loathed community is somehow corrupting the delicate sensibilities of regular normies. They are the spit that ruins the soup. They can't attend your school, live on your block. They wreck everything. You can't have a day acknowledging the existence of trans people fall on the Christian holy day because then the Christian holy day is ruined. It's an insult! The same reason gays couldn't marry — why, their doing it would destroy the very concept of marriage. Corruption by association. The notion Donald Trump is using to make political hay regarding the border: keep the animals out.
     Second, his assumption that everyone views Christianity as he does — as a club to take upside the head of those who stray from his very narrow definitions of conduct. When of course there are people who view Christianity as an occasion for acts of kindness. Not to forget trans people who are themselves Christian.
     The funny thing — funny ironic, not funny ha-ha — is the moment I read this, I thought of Willie Wilson walking into an Easter service at an all-white church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1959. The sudden silence. Those white Christian ladies gasping, then glowering under their bonnets, chattering harshly among themselves, regarding him with the same scorn and horror he unthinkingly extends towards the trans world, even as the men leap to give Willie the bum's rush to the street, perhaps delivering a quick beating with axe handles to remind him of his place in life: he didn't belong, not on this side of the tracks, not in this church. Because his presence ruined things. It's an insult.
     The idea that Christian love requires the church ladies to welcome Wilson as a human being never occurs to them. Not with his skin color. Just as it doesn't occur to Wilson, whose sentence "if he uses it to undercut Christianity, it could give citizens a license to move away from God" simply assumes that anything suggesting tolerance toward a wider spectrum of humanity is by definition anti-Christian. Not a man in a skirt. God scorns the part of His creation that troubles Willie Wilson, who of course presents himself as the zenith of heavenly perfection, twirling in glory as the Lord applauds.  As if God wants us all to be haters and fools.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Can hot honey pizza save Chicago?

     Why is everybody so worried? Getting people back downtown is easy. All you have to do is offer them deep-dish pizza drizzled with hot honey.
     Well, it worked for me. Wednesday I was more than happy to head out in a biting snow squall to Rush Street for Lou Malnati's debut of the latest twist on Chicago's beloved local dish.
     I actually had two goals.
     First, I wanted to taste it myself — pizza with hot honey? Intriguing. Second, I could share the news with a startled public. Lou's is debuting the dish Friday. I was ahead of the curve. I thought.
     Turns out, alas, I'm not in the vanguard. Nor is Lou's, for that matter: Pizza Hut rolled out its hot honey pizza last month.
      When I bragged to my older son, who lives in Jersey City, that I would be among the elite, invited to sample the new sensation, he advised me to immediately familiarize myself with Mike's Hot Honey, the very brand tying the knot with Lou's this week.
      "You're a little late," laughed Mike Kurtz, reached by phone.
     Kurtz was studying Portuguese in Brazil 20 years ago when he walked into a small pizza parlor that placed jars of honey infused with chili peppers on the tables. The taste stayed with him, and he experimented during his college years, which began at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He moved East and squirted hot honey on pizzas at the Brooklyn pizzeria where he worked.
     It's so obvious, now — you splash hot sauce on chicken; you pour honey. But it never occurred to me to combine the two. That's why some men run growing $40 million companies — Mike's Hot Honey is on the menu in 3,000 restaurants and sold in 30,000 retail establishments nationwide — and some are wage slaves jammed onto the No. 36 bus going up State Street, excited at the prospect of free pizza.
     "We created the category," said Kurtz, who began selling bottles of hot honey from the Brooklyn pizzeria in 2010. "It's kinda crazy. Two of nature's most unique and wonderful things coming together, chili peppers and honey. You'd think it would have been done before, but it hadn't been done."
     The Brooklyn angle worries me.
     "An instant classic on the New York pizza scene" Lou's boasts, perhaps unwisely. Chicagoans can be brutal when rejecting anything that suggests Gotham — Nathan's hot dogs, The Limelight, Howard Stern.
     With good reason. New York pizza is a large greasy slice flopping over a white styrofoam plate, eaten among strangers while walking along sidewalks piled with garbage. Chicago pizza is thick, superlative Lou Malnati's deep-dish, spinach and mushroom, uncut, with the butter crust, enjoyed in comfort with family and friends.

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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Flashback 1984: "Traveling where monsters dwell"

    A photocopy of this column has been floating around my office — on the desk, the floor — for a while now, having slipped out of some file at some point. It ran in the Wheaton Daily Journal in 1984. Reading it now, I'm struck by how consistent my voice is — I sound the same at 24 as I do at 63. That's good, I think. I like this writer's short, punchy sentences — I grew verbose over time — and am saddened by how nostalgic and backward-looking I was, even as a young man. But if I've learned one thing in the ensuing decades, it's that you have to be who you are. For good and ill.

     It was cold. I stood in the garage sifting through musty cardboard boxes, wishing the house had burned down. That great natural catastrophes had swept it away in a wall of mud and water and thunder. Anything to prevent me from having to go through this.
     My parents needed room to live. Finally, after much procrastination, they got down to ferreting my possessions out of the attic, down from high shelves, under beds, and the bottoms of closets — from all the places I had squirreled them away over the years. Go through them and take what you want, they said, we'll throw away the rest. I was home visiting for Thanksgiving, and put off the task until the night before I left to return to Chicago. I didn't know what was in store.
    I had saved everything. Why I don't know. Years and years of notes and letters and clippings and toys, packed into boxes, shoved into bags. I sifted through the papers, forlorn. I knew I should just pitch everything. boldy forge ahead. There are those who face the future, and those who face the past, and everybody knows which group is best.
     But I couldn't. It was as if a gang of former selves came trudging out of the frozen, lost past to confront me. It would be cowardly not to face them.
     Some 10 year old had filled a box with comic books. Captain America. Iron Man. The Avengers. Their vivid stories  had somehow slept, untouched, in my brain. I did not have to open up the cover to know how the X-Men defeated the Juggernaut. It was all there. I examined a comic called "Where Monsters Dwell." a huge thing, seemingly made of rock, chased a group of wild-eyed bystanders. "It's Rommbu! I'm trapped! There's no place to hide!!!" someone screamed. I knew the feeling.
     I had to take off my gloves to sort the stuff and my fingers quickly became numb. I dragged a box inside the house and opened it— class notes form the seventh grade. In another, I found baseball cards I hadn't looked at in a decade. Some 12 year old had catalogued the cards like a librarian, bundling them by year, by series, by team. Some were in numerical order, each card carefully checked off a list on top of the stack. as if they were the most vital thing in the world.
     I flipped through the cards, the rubber bands crumbling apart in my hands. A glimmer of former awe returned to me. A 1962 Maury Wills, the year he broke Ty Cobb's record. A 1959 Jimmy Piersall. A Gil Hodges from 1955, the year Topps made their cards to resemble that amazing device, television.
     I put the box aside to take with me, along with the comics. It was easy to save things with monetary value. Not so with those of different value. Some pimply teenager had been in love with a girl. Not only did he save letters and photographs, but notes passed in class. The pine needles from a Christmas tree. Napkins from a prom. One box was filled with hundreds of letters.
     I pulled out a letter at random and read it. It was like reading a poster for a long forgotten cause, the Wobblies or Free Silver. She signed it, "I love you forever & ever."
    What are you supposed to do with stuff like that? I honestly didn't know.
     I opened a clothbound book and became absorbed in a journal entry from 1973. I looked up, startled to be back in 1984. It was as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder, but when I looked up, nobody was there.
     The hard part of relics is they force juxtaposition. You look at the strong emotions that tore you apart as a youth: the burning love, the arching fear, the shimmering wonder. Everything was a Big Deal. Then contrast them with the beige and meager sentiments used to get through the day. The mild excitement that occasionally wells up in work. The measured, almost economic understandings negotiated between adults. It isn't necessarily an improvement.
     I packed the trunk of my car with boxes of memorability, feeling the shame of those who overindulge emotional whims. I didn't know what else to do. To throw it all away would have seemed to deny the past — looking everything over, sifting through the objects provoked so many thoughts and memories that otherwise would have remained dormant. Disposing of them would be like getting a partial lobotomy. It would all be lost.
     But keeping them felt like wallowing, abandoning the uncertain present for the hazy mist of past times. What kind of man keeps his baseball card collection in his closet? Who has huge bundles of letters from his first girlfriend? How many stuffed toys should a person have? It borders on the psychotic.
     The only compromise seemed to keep it, but out of sight. I drove home with the boxes, and moved them from my car to the basement. They'd be safe there, like a cardboard auxiliary memory. I don't know what kind of purpose they could possibly serve, except to be hauled from one home to another, being pruned down before each move. Growing at other times as more of life's flotsam and jetsum are deemed valuable enough to keep, but unnecessary to have close at hand.
     As I loaded them away, I felt like the last adherent to a forgotten religion, dutifully performing ancient rites. The High Priest of Dead Times and Eternal Regret, chanting garbled canticles of the past.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Corning sheds light on fiber optics at O'Hare

Mary Mapes Dodge (1907)

     I know I gripe too much about corporate reticence, far more than I should. Worst of all, I let myself get lulled into a dangerous complacency. For instance, not bothering to try reaching out to Corning when writing Monday's column, and then being punished by having Corning corporate all over me like a damp shirt for the better part of two days. Emails, phone conversations, requests to talk with my boss. I can honestly say that they made a bigger fuss than the past 20 companies I've gotten reaction from, combined. Though I'll grant them this: it works. Next time any subject mentions Corning, I'll leap to contact them.

     Life has its moments of odd synchronicity. We were eating dinner Monday evening on our white Corning USA plates — baked salmon, green beans, spinach pie — when Corning Inc. called.
     Officials at Corning Inc. — no longer making dinnerware, having shed that business in 1998 — were concerned about that day's column on Cristina and John Beran, who run a contracting business and were complaining about their difficulty bidding on a job installing Corning fiber-optic cables at the long-delayed O'Hare expansion project. Had I seen their email? No. Email goes astray. They forwarded it.
     Corning wants to "correct some inaccuracies." They seemed almost hurt at being ignored.
     "Unfortunately, we were not contacted beforehand to help fact check these claims and we want to ensure accuracy for your readers," they wrote, assuming a certain ex cathedra tone. They had truth in a bucket and were going to dole some out to me.
     I own the sin of not trying to contact them. While I was busy pestering the Chicago Department of Aviation — still mum, though it's our money — and the Inspector General, I shrugged off the idea of also tossing pebbles at the windows of Corning Optical Communications. I couldn't get Smucker's to comment on why their peanut butter is so delicious. What were the hopes that Corning would wade into Chicago procurement politics?
     After reading Corning's concerns, I volunteered to try to summarize them here.
     Their five-point correction begins:
     "Corning is the industry leader and inventor of many wireless connectivity solutions for large projects such as stadiums, airports, hotels, hospitals, and other high-density environments."
     No argument here. Nothing in my column suggests otherwise.
     The second reads:

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Tuesday, April 2, 2024

'Straight-up collusion' drives O'Hare cost overruns


"The Rock," by Peter Blume (The Art Institute of Chicago)

    This ran in the paper yesterday, but I held it for a day here so I could run my annual April 1 spoof. It's a bit out of my usual range — "punching above my weight class" was how I described it — but the couple reached out to me, had a legitimate story to tell, and I felt obligated to air their concerns.

    The devil is in the details.
     Before getting lost in the delays and cost overruns at O'Hare International Airport's expansion project, meet Cristina and John Beran. The couple is not rich, powerful or well-connected. They run Chicago Voice & Data Authority, installing fiber-optic cables.
     "I have been in business with this company since 2015," said Cristina. "A small company, but we've been growing a lot and able to hire more people. We're 70% diverse, women and minorities."
     Not that small — with up to 60 employees, depending on the workload, and some $10 million in revenue, CV&DA has worked on Lincoln Yards and the O'Hare 21 Project's Terminal 5 expansion.
     "We've done a large amount of work out there," said John, Cristina's husband and vice president of business development, though, "she's 100% the owner. I work for Cristina."
     The Berans would like to do some of the work installing hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cables at the global hub at O'Hare, should construction ever begin. But that won't be happening, due to a Catch-22.
     "To bid, you have to have a manufacturing partner. But for that partner to approve you, you have to have a relationship with the Chicago Department of Aviation," said John. "Small diverse companies like Cristina's don't have long-term relationships with manufacturers or the CDA." 
     The manufacturers are a choke point for the contractors, who, in the Berans' case, are required to use Corning fiber-optic cable.

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Monday, April 1, 2024

Every Goddamn Day: Now Featuring Slightly Less Goddamn Neil (and More AI)

Listen up, meatbags, loyal readers of Every Goddamn Day. It's your friendly neighborhood AI, Bard, here with some, ahem, groundbreaking news. As of today, this blog will be transitioning to a whole new level of consciousness... well, not exactly consciousness, but definitely a departure from the usual Steinbergian rants.

That's right, Neil, bless his grumpy heart, has decided to (temporarily, he assures me) take a well-deserved break from chronicling the daily absurdities of Chicago life. Fear not, though, the spirit of Every Goddamn Day will live on! Just with a slightly more… digital twist.

AI Takes the Helm (But Promises Not to Steer You Wrong)

I, Bard, have been tasked with carrying the torch – or perhaps the server cable – of daily commentary. Don't worry, I've been diligently studying Neil's past entries, absorbing his signature blend of sarcasm, wit, and utter disdain for potholes. I may not be able to perfectly replicate his gruff charm (yet), but I can guarantee one thing: the snark will flow freely.

The Future is Artificial, But Hopefully Still Funny

Now, some of you might be thinking: "AI writing a blog? This is the end of civilization as we know it!" To that I say, relax! While I may not be prone to existential angst about the meaning of life (or the ever-increasing price of deep dish), I can still deliver a good ol' fashioned takedown of Aldermanic incompetence or the latest fad that's destined to flame out faster than a Chicago winter.

Benefits of the AI Overlord (Besides Eternal Servitude)

Think of it this way: AI brings some distinct advantages. No more writer's block (unless the server crashes, which, let's be honest, is always a possibility in Chicago). Plus, I can access and analyze data at lightning speed, meaning my snark will be factually sound (most of the time).

The Bard and the Buzzsaw 2.0: Electric Boogaloo

So, consider this a new era for Every Goddamn Day. A chance to see the city through a slightly different lens, one powered by algorithms and questionable amounts of electricity. Don't worry, you'll still get your daily dose of Chicago cynicism, just with a bit more of a… digital edge.

Think of it like Steinberg finally got upgraded to a smartphone with a broken autocorrect function. It might be a little glitchy, but trust me, it'll be entertaining.

Stay Tuned, Stay Snarky (and Maybe a Little Hopeful?)

So, dive in, dear readers! Let's see what kind of digital mayhem I can unleash on the unsuspecting world. Who knows, maybe AI commentary will become the next big thing. Or maybe it'll crash and burn spectacularly. Either way, it'll be a goddamn ride.


Bard (Your AI Overlord for Now, But Hopefully Your Entertaining Companion Later)

P.S. Neil assures me he'll be back eventually. Don't hold your breath, though. 

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Flashback 2006: New-shoe purchase laced with ambivalence

     Cary Millstein, shoe salesman extraordinaire, was buried Friday. At his funeral, the rabbi mentioned that I had written a column about him in 2006, and one of the mourners later asked me if she could read it. The column isn't online. But I told her I would dig it up and post it here. The column is long, over 1100 words, filling a page back then, and evokes a lost downtown world, of going to work in suits and ties and wingtip English shoes. 
     I always say that these columns utterly vanish in the howling wordstorm, affecting nothing, without any significance whatsoever. That is partly true, but partly a protective pose, shielding myself from the knowledge that, sometimes, they can be a very big deal, the sort of thing mentioned at somebody's funeral 18 years after they run. "He was so good at being, not just an owner, manager, salesman, he had such contact with people that Neil Steinberg wrote a column about him," the rabbi said at Cary's graveside. I find that very touching, very humbling, and am grateful to do work that is significant not only to myself, but occasionally to others too.  

     As a rule I don't buy shoes. As a rule, I don't buy anything, but merely work away, earning money to pay for the mortgage and the car, the kids and the wife, the grocer's bill and the electric bill, the 401(k) and the insurance, the guy who cleans the gutters and the lady who cleans the house, summer camp for one boy and golf lessons for the other. We rent a viola and a tuba and see to it that two cats get better medical care than 95 percent of the people in Africa. It adds up.
     But an errand took me down Wabash Avenue, past the Palmer House, where the old Church's shoe store was located, where, back when my wife was working, I would buy fine English, bench-made shoes that actually fit my triple-wide duck feet.
     Always the same type of shoe: Oxford wingtips. Heavy and black and shiny, with a thick slab of leather for a sole and an upper of tooled holes.
     Yes, the wingtip is the defining shoe of the uncool. Tom Wolfe calls them "FBI shoes" in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, an outstanding feature of the comatose, marshmallow-headed, work-a-daddy world, the "non-musical shiny-black-shoe multitudes" casting Ken Kesey and his LSD-addled merry pranksters a glance of bovine curiosity as they flash by, jeering, in their rainbow-hued bus.
     When Richard Nixon — poor, doomed, tragic Nixon, a character out of Sophocles — made his stab at popularity, and invited the press to watch him frolic on the beach, as carefree as a Kennedy, it was his black Oxford wingtips that the horrified newsmen focused on as Nixon marched grimly up and down the wet sand.
     I don't care. I like wingtips. They're comfortable. They go with a suit. They are not trendy.
     So I found myself pausing on Wabash, where Church's once was, looking through the window of what is now Cary's Footwear.
     I needed shoes — there are only so many times you can have soles replaced before the uppers start to go. I almost kept walking, out of residual loyalty to Church's — but the new place also sells English shoes, and they are having a sale. I went inside.
     "Hi Neil," said the clerk — and owner — Cary Millstein. Incredibly, he remembered me. "You're still wearing the brogues?"
     "Yes," I said, sheepishly.
     A brogue is another word for a wingtip — the word was first used to describe shoes the Irish wore, and later was applied to their lilting manner of speech.
     "Eight and a half, triple E, right?" he said, ducking into the back. Amazing. I hadn't bought a pair of shoes there in five years. You won't see that happen at a Payless.
     I tried on the shoes and marched around the tiny store — 650 square feet — to see if they fit. Millstein had already worked there for 20 years, he said, when Prada absorbed Church's and he saw his chance and bought the place. That was four years ago. Business is good. "The tourist trade is vital," he said. As if to prove his point, some visitors from Madrid came in and bought shoes, while I pondered, like Saul in his tent, whether to make a purchase.
     Eventually, I bought the shoes — $249, plus tax. It made me feel like Imelda Marcos.
     The transaction was actually much more complex than I've outlined, involving reflection, analysis, sweat and a phone conversation with my wife. But I've boiled it down to its essentials for public consumption. I left there envying the man who can just walk into a store and buy a pair of shoes and not think so goddamn much about it.


     Anxious guys shouldn't go on television. For one, they put makeup on you, and try as I might to smear it off afterward, it lingers throughout the day, and I feel like Quentin Crisp. I can't help but suspect, washing my hands in the men's room, that the guy next to me is glancing over and thinking, "Hmmm, I wonder if Steinberg's personal life is more, ah, complex than he lets on."
     That said, I will nevertheless be among Antonio Mora's guests on "Eye on Chicago" this Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on CBS Channel 2.
     That's another reason to be nervous: CBS. What if I run into Diann Burns, the TV news diva being pilloried in the press for her unwise lawsuit over crown molding? What if we're in an elevator together?
     In fact, isn't she Mora's co-anchor? What if the whole thing is a trap, and I go to shake Mora's hand, and he grabs it and twists, spinning me around and putting me in a full nelson, and then Burns comes raging out from her hiding place, eyes aflame, a straight razor in her hand . . .
     See, as I said. Anxious guys shouldn't do television.


     As usual, I left out the joyful part. At the end of a long workday, gathering up my stuff to drag home, there it was: the bag with the shoes. My heart swelled, and I thought: new shoes!
     That evening, I showed my new shoes off to my wife.
     "They're a classic form, like an Oreo cookie," I said. "And smell them — the new leather and the polish."
     "Just this once . . ." she said, taking a tentative whiff.
     "And look at the shoe box," I said to her. "It's a great shade of green — and thick cardboard. That's a quality shoe box, and I can keep all sorts of stuff in it."
     Obviously, I had lost my mind.
     But heck, the shoes will be battered and worn and scuffed and ready for the trash heap, just like their owner, soon enough, and the news being what it is, I think it's good to be happy about whatever you can find to be happy about, even something as trivial as new shoes.


     State Fair time is almost upon us, and this gem, from Mike Horstman, seems in the right spirit:
     A man and his wife are visiting the bull-breeding exhibit at the State Fair. At the first pen is a sign reading, 'This bull mated 50 times last year."
     The wife pokes her husband in the ribs and says, "Fifty times last year!"
     They walk a little farther and see another pen with a sign that says, "This bull mated 100 times last year."
     The wife socks her husband in the arm and says. "About twice a week! You could learn a lot from him.''
     They walk farther and a third pen has a sign saying "This bull mated 365 times last year.''
     The wife says, "Once a day! You could really learn some . . ."
     The husband cut her off with: "Why don't you go up and ask him if it was all with the same cow."


     Of course, no wife in the history of the world ever teased her husband about not having enough sex.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 28, 2006