Friday, March 24, 2023

‘We nearly broke the system’

Photograph for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin

    Dr. Jaime Moreno, head of emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, was making the rounds Tuesday when he tried to take a quick mid-afternoon break.
     “I haven’t had the chance to sit down yet today,” he said, microwaving a container of beef and vegetables brought from home. “I don’t get a lunch, so I’m going to take my lunch right now.”
     Within minutes. a voice came over the hospital’s public address system: “Code Yellow, Code Yellow, trauma in the emergency room.” A teenager, gunshot wound to the hip. Lunchtime over, Moreno jumped up and hurried to help.
     At the three-year anniversary of the coronavirus shutting down Illinois, the pandemic has ebbed, but Chicago area hospitals are struggling to cope with the vastly altered health care world the plague left behind.   
     “COVID has changed many things,” said Moreno. “We’re still reeling from it.”
     While the public might be trying to forget COVID, that is not a luxury the medical community can indulge in.
     Dr. Ngozi Ezike, who headed up the state COVID response as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health for two years, said while we’re familiar with mass casualty events overwhelming a single hospital or city, COVID is a nationwide mass casualty event — more than a million dead.     ”It was an incredible strain on the system,” she said. “No one living has seen an overwhelming of all hospitals in the entire country at the same time, for a prolonged period of time, literally months at a stretch for each surge. This was unprecedented, and not something any system could fully plan for, prepare for, or endure.”
     “The landscape has changed so completely,” said Kristin Ramsey, senior vice president quality/chief nurse executive at Northwestern Medicine. “Health care providers in all fields are walking away.”
‘Unprecedented’ staff shortage driven by burnout
     Exodus of staff is the No. 1 problem cited by hospital administrators in Chicago and nationwide.
     “A lot of burnout,” said Moreno. Mount Sinai, almost always 10% understaffed, is even lower on “bad days,” with 30%, even 40% fewer personnel on hand than necessary.
     “Unprecedented,” he said. “People are stressed out. A lot of nurses have stepped away, leaving a lot of holes. Not just in my hospital but hospitals around the country.”

To continue reading, click here.

Photograph by Ashlee Rezin

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tie died

Portrait of a Man, by Frans Hals (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

"Fuck you," I said, or maybe just thought, catching sight of my friend Bill Savage in the lower level hallway at the Evergreen Park Public Library before our program began Wednesday night.
     Not "hello." Not "thanks for coming." Not "good to see you; it's been a while."
     "Fuck you."
     Bill had kindly agreed to be my interlocutor — the guy asking the questions — at a discussion of my book, "Every Goddamn Day." Not to forget the only reason that I still have a book publishing career, of sorts, that I've written three books for the University of Chicago Press, is that 10 years ago Bill thought I might be a good fit. I owe him a lot.
     There's more. We keep up, we grab lunch in Evanston every few months, just to talk about literature and Chicago and the whir of the city we both love.  
     In my defense, there was no malice in my obscene imperative. More like a school days "aww, c'mon" conviviality, almost an affection, a chuckle, and I want you to look at this picture I snapped of Bill and see if the reason for my remark is as obvious as I think it is. Stop reading and look at the picture.
     What was I cursing at him about?     
     It's obvious, right? The tie. Bill wore a necktie. I wore a plaid L.L. Bean teal and red work shirt under a green REI fleece. Naturally, effortlessly, without consideration, almost without thought. I used to dress up more, but I remember my wife saying, "You're the writer; you can wear jeans."
     But there is an insecurity that underlies fashion. A sheeplike conformity. Why do you think men always tend to dress alike, to wear the same thing? There is an assumption that the other guy is right, knows better, is richer, smarter, and worthy of emulation.
     Or maybe that's my own insecurity talking. Maybe most people don't give a damn.
     I think the next thing I said was, "You win!" — or maybe "I lose" — referring to the unspoken competition of men being dressed for an occasion. I'd been blindsided. I don't believe I've ever seen Bill in a tie before, and the thought of wearing a tie would have never crossed my mind. It was almost unfair of him, to commence this contest without warning.
     When I got closer, I could see that not only was it a tie, it was a cool "Clout" tie.
    "Where did you get that?" I asked.
     "Ebay," he said, observing that the little skyline before "CLOUT" had the added graphic benefit of looking like an extended middle finger. 
    Honesty, my first inclination was to carry the fashion theme out to the program — to shunt aside the topic, my book "Every Goddamn Day," point out our differing approach to neckwear and survey the audience about who is in the right here. Me, dressed in the normal, acceptable, comfortable, ready-to-sprawl-on-the-couch, hike-a-mountain, or speak-to-an-audience ensemble of jeans and woodsy wear, or Bill and his friggin' cravat? We could spend the entire hour talking about it. I think I've worn a necktie once in public in the last three years — at a lunch featuring the book at the high hat Chicago Club. A tie, a blue blazer, khakis (good call; most men wore similar, I fit right in).
    But that seemed unwise and, besides, Bill was in charge of the program, and he started us off and kept us on topic and the conversation lively and interesting. People seemed genuinely pleased, and I sold 21 books. To my disappointment, the tie was never mentioned.
     I suppose the tie was a sort of compliment. I am after all a Chicago author — one whose work is part of the curriculum he teaches. So maybe Bill wanted to give the moment a sense of gravitas and dressed the part. I'm lucky he didn't wear a black robe and mortarboard, purple mantle, and carry a scroll. Unless the necktie was some kind of mockery. I could ask him. But honestly, it might be better not to know the truth.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

‘There’s no downside’

     “Sometimes I look up and wonder, ‘What the hell happened?’” says John, sliding into a booth at Dapper’s East, a classic family-style restaurant on West Addison.
     We order coffee, no food. John doesn’t want lunch, which strikes me as unusual.
     “Do you not eat, as a practice?” I venture.
     No, by necessity. Stomach cancer. Fifteen years ago.
     “They took the whole thing out,” says John, who doesn’t want his last name used. “I beat the odds, but lost my appetite at some point.”
     We last saw each other in 1992. I had been browsing the classifieds in the Reader, looking for story ideas, and noticed an ad for the store he owned on Elston Avenue, selling women’s clothing in large sizes to men.
     “Now there’s a business you just don’t see in the paper much,” I thought, and headed over and met John, when he dressed as a man, and Karen, when she dressed as a woman.
    Focusing just on the One to One Boutique seemed to miss the larger story. So I broadened my scope, attending a dance held by the Chicago Gender Society, also visiting a safe house — an empty apartment used to stash clothing and wigs and makeup away from prying eyes.
     The store is long gone. When did that happen?
     “The Yankees were just winning their first series in a long time” — says John, a baseball fan. “So it must have been ’96.”
     The resultant story was written without any snickering or judgment: just a group of ordinary people who are unusual in a certain way, trying to comprehend what motivates them. It’s an approach I wish more Americans would embrace: to at least entertain the possibility that people different from themselves can be understood instead of simply condemned.
     Cut to last fall, and a letter from a reader about the possibility of Texas secession. At the end, he mentions, “We met about 30 years ago. I’m the person on Elston ...”
     This seemed an opportunity to better understand the connection, if any, between men who dress as women — called “transvestites” 30 years ago — and another, possibly related, group much in the news lately: trans men and women.
     Even then, there were two distinct categories: transvestites, who were straight men, for the most part, dressing as women, and transsexuals, men who defined themselves as women, or women who defined themselves as men, and sometimes transitioned through hormones and surgery.
     We begin at the beginning.
     “My dirty dark secret is, I’m from Mount Greenwood,” says John. “I did not fit in well there.”
     I'll bet....

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Flashback 1993: `Crazy' Commuters Scare Road Crews

     The arrival of the spring equinox and construction on the Kennedy expressway arrived simultaneously yesterday evening, and I can only assume the latter was timed to mock the former. Unlike spring, which in three months will yield to summer, the Kennedy congestion mess will continue on for three years, and if that seems an impossibly long time, consider this: I was writing about this the last time they tore up the Kennedy. The article below ran in the Sun-Times exactly 30 years ago tomorrow. I can't imagine either paper will, as I did,  buttonhole construction workers as they work on the highway and quiz them. But if they did, I wouldn't expect the construction perspective to have changed much. Some things are eternal.

     Who are these people, anyway, doing this to us?
     Scrambling over our besieged, vital Kennedy Expressway, with their orange vests, spanner wrenches, work boots, bandannas and heavy machinery. Raising dust. Committing clatter. Gazing at us as we inch miserably by, inscrutable behind their Ray Bans, welder's goggles and safety glasses.
     Meet Fred Williams.
     Williams, 48, is a foreman at Midwest Fence Corp. He and his crew will be working the Kennedy all summer. They are ironworkers, installing guardrails.
     Williams lives in Country Club Hills with his wife and three kids. When he is driving with his family, he sometimes shows off sections of the expressway he has worked on.
     "I'll point to something and say, `I did that,' " said Williams, whose son Theis, 13, is suitably impressed. "He'd love to get into this line of work."
     The Midwest Fence crew's current project underscores an opinion held by almost everybody working on the Kennedy. The crew is installing a guardrail along the Chicago Avenue overpass so that cars will not damage the bridge supports should they veer out of control and crash.
     The opinion is this: Commuters are insane.
     "The Kennedy is the worst for drivers — these guys are crazy," said Dorie Hodal, pausing from her work with the crew. "You never know what may happen; some crazy might run over you. You have to be alert all the time."
     "It's scary, scary, scary," Olga Alvarez shouted. She struggles to hold her orange "SLOW/STOP" sign and orange flag against the hurricane blast of a semi-trailer truck. "Especially the semis. They go fast, blow me and my stop sign away."
     "This morning, three cars missed the exit and cut through the barricades and cut across (the construction area)," said Refujio Puente. "We always have to watch out."
     At the peak of activity this summer, about 400 workers will labor over the expressway.
     Much of their complex feelings about the traffic can be expressed in two words: slow down.
     "If motorists would just obey speed limits and watch for signs, there would be less accidents," said Jim Senerchia, raising a huge orange sign with three curving arrows.
     Senerchia worries that drivers think some sort of malice motivates the construction workers.
     "Drivers act like we're out to get them, like the reason we're here is to slow things down and cause a mess," he said. "We're just trying to fix the road."
     Not everybody thinks the Kennedy is a special case. To John Panieri, operating a Gradall, an all-purpose piece of heavy equipment with a telescoping arm, the Kennedy is no better or worse than any other highway job.
     "It's always like this," he said. "All expressways are the same. It's just the nature of it."
     Rick Andryske, of Directions Metropolitan, is laying down temporary pavement markers - using a thick white paint-like substance, made of thermo-plastic with shiny glass beads.
     "This job has a lot more hectic time frame," he said, comparing the Kennedy to other projects. The scariest thing that ever happened to him in three years of working on the Kennedy was "mountains of ice breaking off from the bottom of a truck and sliding toward me, knocking me into traffic." 
     But you can't worry about accidents, only watch out for them.
     "It's dangerous, but you don't think about it," he said. "You have a job to do."
     But there are good things, too.
     "You do get a few people who know you beeping the horn and saying hello," said Raymond Dorgam, 47, also of Directions.
     If appeals to safety do not get motorists to slow down, another consideration might: heavy, fast traffic delays the work. Without a gap between cars, trucks cannot scoot onto the roadway and, if traffic is crawling, construction equipment crawls, too.
     "Our trucks get stuck in traffic," said a Palumbo Brothers construction foreman. "The first two days, when traffic was light, we nearly got two days of work done in one. Tell people: If they want this done faster, find an alternate route."
              — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 22, 1993

Monday, March 20, 2023

French pension problems on their way here

     My brother, freshly back from Paris last week, reports piles of garbage everywhere.
     “Though it’s French garbage,” he observed. “More refined.”
     Until rioters set it on fire, that is. All burning garbage is alike.
     It’s the result of the nationwide protests that have rocked France for weeks, outcry over the national retirement age being raised from 62 to 64.
     We should be watching this unrest carefully here in Chicago, a city with a nearly $34 billion unfunded municipal pension liability. Double the size of the annual city budget. It’s almost funny to see our two mayoral candidates talk about how they’re going to finance their pie-in-the-sky, cop-on-every-corner dreams of urban perfection by digging into the sofa cushions and holding bake sales and cutting corruption. One dollar in five spent by the city services its pension debt. The next mayor will be lucky to maintain the status quo, to send the occupying army of retirees their checks while continuing to put out fires. We should scrap our motto, Urbs in Horto, “City in a Garden,” and replace it with Urbs in Foraminis, “City in a Hole.”
     It’s fun to sneer at the French — socialist shovel-leaners complaining about their sweet retire-at-62 perk shifting to a not bad retire-at-64. But at least they’re trying to do something. Our solution is to sell the family silver, or parking meters, kick the can down the road, and hope for a miracle.
     I should point out that U.S. Social Security also kicks in at 62, though it starts out at such a pittance, the general advice is to wait as long as possible, so it can grow into something you can scrape by on, maybe.
     If I combine it with the smoldering scraps of our exploded newspaper pension, and judicious, this-has-gotta-last-me sips at my 401(k), and it might add up to a kind of subsistence. I certainly won’t be nursing a pastis at a cafe on the Rue Mouffetard.
     Then again, I might be an oddity. Most of my fellow columnists have already hung up their spikes — whether defenestrated by the corporate butchers who bought the Chicago Tribune or shown the gate for an ill-considered joke at the Washington Post or various colleagues stepping down at the Sun-Times.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

'Everyplace else is a location'


     I was in Barcelona last October, crossing the Ramblas toward our hotel, one of those wide, wide intersections by Catalonia Square where armies of people come thundering across the street. I looked down at my feet, where the tiles were designed by architectural genius Antoni Gaudi, at the mobs of people, and cars, and bicycles, vibrant urban life, and had a thought I've been reluctant to put in the newspaper.
     "Now THIS is a world class city!"  Yes, Barcelona has more than a million fewer residents than Chicago (though Madrid has slightly more). And yes, that may have been the thrill of travel, of seeing new wonders, eating new foods in new places. But Chicago, in its reduced post-COVID, post-George Floyd form, hasn't gotten its mojo back. Something tells me a NASCAR race won't help.
    What's a world class city? One that doesn't have to ask the question.
    Yes, running down your home is never a good idea. The American returned from abroad who speaks with a slight accent and is gushing with unusual wonders — journalists get into museums free! — is a cliche, and a bad look.
     That said, I thought of my moment in Catalonia about the third reader who said, "Give us a third column!" when I cut Hollywood director Michael Goi off at the end of my second piece on our interview without going into detail about his putting Chicago in its place as a film capital. I started with the above observation because I didn't want to let Goi go anywhere I wasn't willing to go myself. It seemed cold compensation for keeping me and my readers fascinated for two days, maybe three, depending on how this turns out.
     Though offering a civic reality check, however unwelcome, is one role of the journalist.
     And there was something unusual about that interview. Since we talked on Zoom, I taped it, rather than typing as he spoke. The first column of course related to his journey to Hollywood as an Asian-American, the topic of the moment. Transcribing to the recording, I wrote the interview, and it ran far too long. Normally, I'd have taken what I wanted, and not necessarily even listen to the rest. But I turned in the column — at over 1000 words, almost 50 percent longer than usual — then not only did listen, but kept typing it out, figuring I might use it later. When I finished, I clicked the wrong button and lost half a dozen paragraphs of his remarks. So I groaned, tapped my fist on the desk, and then listened again, and typed it again. That never happens, and what prompted me to write the second column, about interviewing for a job.  I figured, why wait?
     I could have sliced off the top, about the tension between ethnicity as a draw and a distraction, crowding out other aspects that are also of interest. Perhaps greater interest. But I like that line of thought. It doesn't get said enough during our Carnival of Identities. So I briefly summarized what he said about Chicago.
     Four readers asked for a third column, even demanded it. That's a lot. So while I'm not a short order cook, here goes.
     I asked Goi about raising kids in Los Angeles — he has three children, two teens and a preschooler. He agreed that raising children in Los Angeles can be a challenge.
    "Personally, I'd rather live in New York City," he said "I think growing up in Chicago and not just dealing with the snow , but dealing with everything, it kinda makes you tough and makes you understand how to navigate different people and personalities. It's different if you have to take the 'L' and interact with people than if you are driven in a car to school as happens in Los Angeles. But this is where the film industry is, where dad's work is, this is where we are."
    Goi sees an honesty in Chicagoans that might be harder to recognize among those remaining in the daily claw and grind of the city.
   "Most of the people I work with who are from Chicago, a lot of us already knew each other, knew what we were all about," he said. "Part of the nice thing, there is no bullshit. You can't bullshit another Chicagoan. They'll see right through it. That's refreshing in a lot of ways. The fact you know when somebody tells you something, no matter how you don't want to hear it, you're hearing the truth. That's incredibly valuable. I appreciate that candid way of approaching things. I never feel there is anything I have to hide anyway, being able to talk to Tyrone Finch (producer of ABC's "Station 19,"actually hailing from Cleveland) or Joey Mantegna or Charlie Carner (producer, known for "Blind Fury" and "The Untouchables" TV series). Any of these people I know from Chicago in this business, we know they're not going to be any level of deception in our relationships." 
Michael Goi
     Pretty to think so, as another former Chicagoan, Ernest Hemingway said.  I would counter that the supposed Chicago attribute of savviness is at odds with the notion that Chicagoans are inherently honest with each other, even Chicago expats in a distant city. But that's what he said, and he obviously believes it.
The part that came next pricked up my ears, for being red meat in the water for film board booster sorts:
    "The film industry in terms of the decisions being made in terms of what shows will actually be made is still based in Los Angeles," he said. "Everyplace else is a location, including Chicago. New York City, Atlanta, New Mexico, Vancouver. They're locations, They will pick up and travel to shoot at whatever place on earth is the cheapest to shoot in that moment  of time. People deceive themselves in some locations. I remember when doing shows in New Orleans, 'American Horror Story.' New Orleans at that time was getting a lot of work, I did a seminar and said, 'As soon as you stop being the cheapest place on earth to shoot, all these productions are going to pick up and going to move to wherever is the next cheapest place on earth to shoot.' And it happened to them. They didn't think it was going to happen to them. It happened a year later. Atlanta, Georgia, enacted tax breaks that were much more favorable and everything picked up and left New Orleans and went to Georgia. 
   "In this industry, you accept being part of the traveling circus. If you are going to survive in this industry, you will be packed up and shipped out to wherever is the cheapest place on earth to shoot at that time. It sounds very glamorous: 'Oh wow, you've done two, three movies in South Africa. You're done two movies in Morocco.' It sounds very glamorous. It's more the reality of what you have to do to stay in this business and make a living in it. You have to be able to go work in these places."
      I know nothing about making movies except that being on a movie set is like watching paint dry. But the above struck me as having what I call "the tang of veracity." It sounds entirely true.  Anyway, I think I've gotten my money's worth out of my hour with Michael Goi. I can't say we got on — he was very dry, very professional, with zero interest in me or in chit-chat. But he had that rare quality of being honest and forthcoming, and I had to share it with you.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Works in progress: Steve Sheffey

   The Judgment of Solomon, by Leonaert Bramer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Writing for publication is daunting. Even for a single twig snap in the vast bonfire of the internet. So when I mentioned that I would consider submissions from readers for EGD's "Works in progress" Saturday feature, I did not expect a lot of waving hands. In fact, there was only one, this week’s guest writer, Steve Sheffey, active in Democratic and pro-Israel politics. In college he submitted a piece to NU's humor magazine, “Rubber Teeth,” which we rejected. I can’t say that it was an error or that I regret, or even remember, it. But he requested another chance to submit a piece, and this time the answer was yes.

     Thank you, Neil, for inviting me to pinch-hit today. I’ve been reading your work since college and it’s an honor to contribute. 
     You would think that someone who’s been writing a weekly newsletter on pro-Israel politics for 17 years would have come up with a simple definition of “pro-Israel” by now, especially since he calls his newsletter “Steve Sheffey’s Pro-Israel Political Update, which The Forward referred to as “the Chicago Jewish newsletter that even Republicans have to read.” But it’s not that easy. 
     Israel is different from most political issues because disagreements stem from a common understanding of the facts. No one wants to get Covid; whether you favor wearing or mandating masks depends on whether you think masks work. Whether you favor getting vaccinated or mandating vaccines depends on whether you think the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks. These are facts. 
     Aside from the extreme right, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and settlement expansion in the West Bank is accepted as fact. The historic, national, and religious connections of Jews to the land that is today Israel and the West Bank is accepted as fact by all but the extreme left.      
     But these facts lead to different conclusions. Someone who supports the concept of a Jewish, democratic State of Israel, as I do, will oppose the occupation and oppose settlement expansion because only a two-state solution, one state with a large Jewish majority and one Palestinian state, can guarantee Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state. 
     Someone who opposes the concept of a Jewish state can point to the occupation and argue that the answer is one binational state, a state that might have a lot of Jews but that will be democratic and not necessarily Jewish. 
     Similarly, one can oppose proposals by Israel’s ruling coalition to eviscerate Israel’s Supreme Court because one sides with the Israelis who want Israel to remain democratic, or one could look at the same facts and see proof that Israel’s government does not support democracy and is not worthy of U.S. support. 
     I call my newsletter “pro-Israel” not because I reflexively support any decision made by Israel’s government: I differentiate between supporting the State of Israel and the government of Israel, just as I differentiate between supporting America and supporting Donald Trump (or, for that matter, Joe Biden). 
      Rather, I call my newsletter “pro-Israel” because I want my readers to know that the candidates and policies I support are consistent with the belief that only by working toward a two-state solution – and giving up the notion of a Greater Israel comprising Israel and the West Bank – can the State of Israel remain safe, secure, Jewish, and democratic. Anything less than that is not good for Israel, good for the Jews, or consistent with the values that form the bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship. 
     A two-state solution is not politically possible now. Israel’s current government doesn’t want it and whether current Palestinian wants it or not, the Palestinian Authority is too weak. But Israel needs a two-state solution for its own sake, let alone to realize the aspirations of the Palestinians, which is why those of us who support Israel should oppose steps by Israel’s government that make a two-state solution less likely. 
     Some argue that it doesn't matter what Israel does because the Palestinians want not an end to the occupation of the West Bank but an end to Israel itself. Some probably do, just as some Israelis want a Jewish state from the river to the sea. The reality is that millions of Palestinians aren't going anywhere. Millions of Jews aren't going anywhere. Palestinians see the rebirth of Israel as a catastrophe, a nakba that conflicted with their national aspirations and led to displacement and worse. Jews see the rebirth of Israel as a modern miracle that realized 2,000 years of national aspirations and provided a needed safe haven from centuries of antisemitic persecution. 
     Neither side has to give up its narrative or accept the other side's narrative, but both sides must realize that the only path forward, a two-state solution, requires both sides to give up sovereignty over land that they believe should be theirs and both sides to accept that previous sins of the other side may never be fully redressed. And everyone who cares about Israel has a duty to speak up, whether for or against the policies of whatever government is in power. 
      That’s not everyone’s idea of “pro-Israel,” but it's mine. If you like what you’ve read, or if you’re curious, I’d love for you to join the thousands of people who read my newsletter. It’s free, it’s once a week, and you can sign up here or email me at