Friday, December 20, 2013

A van worthy of its doughnuts

     My first glimpse came as it paused, making a right turn onto LaSalle Street, an improbable old blue step van with "Doughnut Vault" emblazoned on the side. Robin's egg blue and quaintly rounded — it looked like the milk trucks of my youth.   
     It is a 1957 International Metro in the service of Chicago's heralded Doughnut Vault, which I wrote about a few months after it opened in 2011. Besides making incredible doughnuts—the gingerbread cake is to die for—the Vault is known for the long lines which persist most days outside the tiny shop at 401 N. Franklin Street from the time they open until they run out of the thousand doughnuts they bake every day, usually by lunchtime.
    So not only is the van cool, but it fills an important function. No need to find the shop, immediately north of the Merchandise Mart, and wait in that line for 20 minutes or half an hour for your $3 doughnut. Now the shop would find you. 
    I couldn't run up to it as it turned, though I thought about it. Then the truck was gone, vanished into the air, like some exotic bird, seen for a moment in repose, then flapping off.
     Online, I gleaned that the van was created by Vintage Step Vans, a Columbus Ohio concern, and hit the streets in September. In case you don't want to rely upon serendipity, the van tweets its location @vaultvanChicago. 
     I didn't check its tweets. I waited. A few weeks went by. I was hiking to the County Building, when I caught sight of it perched outside Block Thirty Seven -- nesting on the sidewalk, as if it weren't incongruous enough. It was there as part of a NOSH event, trying to draw customers to the moribund development. But the truck remained outside, as if to be removed from the taint of the cursed structure.
     In the back was a young man wearing a fedora. His name is Derek Repsch, and he said not only are Doughnut Vault customers attracted but the van, but so are its employees.
     "It was a big draw for me," he said, selling me a birthday cake doughnut filled with frosting. "Frankly, I thought it was a lot of fun."
Derek Repsch
     The Doughnut Vault is the creation of culinary wunderkind Brendan Sodikoff, who also owns the Gilt Bar around the corner and several other hot area eateries. It was his sincere frustration with the lines outside the Doughnut Vault that led to the creation of the van. "I feel bad about the line," he told Chicago Magazine last year. "I called the city to see if I could sell doughnuts out of a Dutch-style bike to help cut the lines. But they said no, it had to be a motorized vehicle." 
     They didn't say it had to be such a delightful motorized vehicle. That's just the kind of attention to detail that also makes for great doughnuts. It was natural that they would create a vehicle that stands out from the generic colorful cupcake wagons and waffle vans.
     "Throughout the whole company, there's a kind of aesthetic," said Repsch. It shows.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kids won't ask, so you need to give them books

This column didn't quite turn out how I wanted it to. It started with the news of Bernie's Book Bank, which filtered down through the Sun-Times hierarchy, and ended up with me, I guess, because it's about books. I might have let it go, but I had the vignette from Jack London burning on my brain pan. And I meant for it to reach into books as objects. My gut tells me that writing is writing, and just as it can be read as easily in a book as on a parchment, so it can be read on a screen, and when you compare the dollars for print books versus pennies for electronic ones, of course people will gravitate toward ebooks. But look at the proliferation of orchestras, or live theater, of artisanal everything, flying in the face of the mass-produced, the virtual, the recorded. Maybe reading a book, with covers, is a tactile act. We'll see. Anyway, I got more reaction to this column, which appeared in the paper Wednesday, than I expected, so I decided to post it here too. 

     When Jack London was 10, a teacher loaned the future author of “The Call of the Wild” a book: “Tales of the Alhambra,” Washington Irving’s sketches of exotic Spain.
     What she did not realize was that London lived in dire poverty; it was his only book. He read it over and over. But eventually it became time to give the book back.
     “I was not a forward child,” London remembered years later. “Unlike Oliver Twist, I was incapable of asking for more. When I returned the ‘Alhambra’ to the teacher, I hoped she would lend me another book.”
     But she didn’t.
     “I cried all the way home on the three-mile tramp from the school to the ranch,” London wrote. “I waited and yearned for her to lend me another book.”
     That’s how kids are. As much as they may need and want them, they do not typically say, “Please give me books.” Because they’re shy or because they don’t know who or how to ask. That’s where adults come in, adults like Brian Floriani, founder of Bernie’s Book Bank, a Lake Forest charity that this week will give away its 2 millionth book to needy Chicago-area children.
     "We started four years ago," Floriani said. "The object was to create a revolutionary children's book-bank model."
     Rather than giving one child one book once, Bernie's forms relationships with schools, visiting twice a year, year after year, giving kids bags of six books at a time.
     "The kids are so excited, it's like it's Christmas when we show up," he said.
     Floriani had been a golf pro when his father — the "Bernie" in Bernie's Book Bank — died suddenly, at age 58 in 2005.
     "It shook me to my core and led me from the golf business toward a life of service," Floriani said.
     His father had been a professor of reading at Lake Erie College in Ohio. Given that his death notice ends, "Because of Bernie's love for reading and books, the nicest memorial for him would be to read a book and make a donation to your local library," his son had specific ideas about how to channel his energies into service.
     "The only way that transformation can happen is education," said Floriani, talking of his father's rise from humble beginnings in Pennsylvania coal mine country. "It wasn't because of who he knew, but because of what he knew."
     One thing about a program like Bernie's — you couldn't do it with e-books. Electronic books have benefits - they're cheaper, eventually; you can search them; they're often lighter to carry. But they have significant drawbacks; besides the common ones - you need a device to read them, you lose the tactile experience of turning pages - you lose serendipity. Buy a book, you have it, can loan it, donate it, put it on a table. A bookcan pop up, years after you've forgotten it, and present itself to be read again.
     Books still help kids learn, in part because books still grab readers in ways that online text doesn't. For all the emphasis on electronics, books have proven surprisingly resilient. This season, sales of e-books and e-readers are flat, and many kids can't afford technology. While computers are sometimes educational, sometimes just a distraction, books are still essential, though not in many households.
     "Some kids come to school not knowing what books are," Floriani said. "Those kids don't have a chance."
     Bernie's is celebrating giving its 2 millionth book on Thursday at the Academy for Global Citizenship, 4647 W. 47th. As good a thing as this is, I couldn't help but pause at the emphasis on number of books. When I asked Floriani about the quality of the books, he thought I meant the condition.
     "If a book is overloved, it doesn't cut the mustard," he said. "Fifty percent of our books go out used, 50 percent new. You'd hardly be able to tell the difference."
     No, no — what sort of books? Is Bernie's just a conduit between publishers with overstock? Good-hearted people with too many books and kids who take what they get?
     He said they rate books by grade. "The leveling, that's done by us," he said, explaining age groups used by their staff of seven.
     That will have to do. The goal is to get books to kids who have none - to get them great books, well, that's a star to reach for.
     Floriani said Bernie's Book Bank is serving about 80,000 at-risk kids, of 300,000 he estimates in need ofbooks. He sees his organization as expanding, not only to surrounding counties, but to other cities.
     "It's a monumental task, but I know it's going to happen," he said. "We want to be an American institution."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You can't just drive by

     It was the morning after Thanksgiving. The feast from the night before was still being digested. Food was the last thing on our minds. 
    Since the out-of-towners were in for the holiday, it seemed a good moment to dedicate my mother-in-laws gravestone. So we all gathered in the cemetery in Westchester. People snap at honors, but I can't think of a better one than 15 of your closest relatives standing in the foot-stamping, finger-numbing cold, for a solid hour, telling each other what they already know: what a fantastic person you were, how much you are missed.
    Finally we ended. "I can't feel my feet," my wife said, signaling the tribute had come to a close. Then we all had to adjourn to Bellwood, it being so close, to see the old house, where my wife and her siblings grew up. 
     After the house had been sufficiently admired, it was time to go to lunch. But I was driving. So though we had feasted the night before, and though the boys, who didn't know any better, questioned the decision, I had to stop at Victor Lezza, cause really, how often are you in Bellwood?  
    ("No, no," my wife objects, "I had to stop at Victor Lezza's...") 
    So we both had to stop. Not so much wanted to, though we did. But had to. It would have been an insult otherwise. Because we were there. I went in, shamefaced, to pick out a pound of Italian cookies. As I was doing so, my wife appeared beside me and ordered four cannoli -- for later. Then my two sons came in even though they said they wouldn't. Just to see. Then my sister-in-law and her husband, unexpectedly. And another brother-in-law.
     Lezza is one of those Chicago places that you just cannot drive by. It would be a kind of sin, like passing your mother in the street without acknowledging her. Yes, you can get Lezza spumoni in supermarkets -- Sunset carries it in Northbrook —and I do. But to buy the cookies, to see their abundant varieties through the case, all forms and shapes, powdered, sprinkled, scalloped and colorful, to select them one by one, the clerk pausing, awaiting your command, you have to be there. And of course cannoli do not tolerate time or travel well -- you need them fresh. They get soggy. And soggy cannoli; just not the same.
       I'm sure everyone has their own list of Chicago places that have some kind of tractor beam, where you just have to stop in, or pull the car over because you are literally unable to drive by. Food mostly. Bennison's Bakery in Evanston. Kaufman's Deli in Skokie. Lots of places on Devon. It feels wrong to pass Tahoora Sweets without going in for piping hot milk tea, for my wife, who loves the tea. And a few of those green trapezoidal pistachio things, for me, since I'm there. The tea is so hot, scalding, that it's still hot when it gets back to Northbrook. 
    Once I was heading home down Devon Avenue and the car just  pulled itself over at Tel Aviv Kosher Bakery. I waited in line, the only secular Jew in a room full of guys in beards and black hats and ladies in long dresses and wigs. I felt like I had stepped back in time. The challahs were fresh and hot from the oven, and, well, without going into self-indicting detail, not nearly as much loaf came out of that car as went into it. 
      Which is another tradition, the parking lot feast. Yes, at Lezza's, we were heading to lunch, but the cookies were right there. By force of will we each limited ourselves to one -- okay, two. But they were really, really savored and appreciated cookies and, frankly, I consider it an admirable act of restraint that we didn't gobble them all. 
      If you're wondering whether I realize how, umm, weak and indulgent this is, yeah. What of it? Schopenhauer I'm not. I'm not. Self-disciplined people reap rewards, no doubt, but sometimes the path of the hero is to plunge into life's feast, and save reserve for another day. And while it is wonderful that we can get everything everywhere, scarcity creates value, and there's something rare, magical, about stuff available at one spot and nowhere else, and to indulge when it is fresh and new to the world. My younger son Kent and I once hopped into the front seat, fresh from New York Bagel on Dempster, and helped ourselves from the big brown bag to one warm, doughy bagel apiece. I should be ashamed to say that it was a highlight of my life. But I'm not and it was. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What color is the Easter Bunny?

     It spoils things, when the people under the stairs complain. When their voices are heard, even softly, filtering up during the party, interrupting the festivities. They might not even be complaining—just hearing them, just being reminded of them, down there, sort of wrecks things.
     To some, that is. That's how they act. And as stupid—as staggeringly stupid—as this latest example, this Fox News Santa-is-white thing is (really, it would look trite in fiction; if Christopher Buckley cooked this episode up in his latest novel, I'd think he had turned the satire screw a twist too far)  there is an important dynamic at work here, enough that I'm giving it a second post. Maybe my mind has snapped, reading all these convoluted  responses, trying to make sense of them. 
     This young Slate writer, Aisha Harris, she suggests something—maybe kids would want a Santa that wasn't a different race, but a neutral Santa, say a penguin. A typical modest proposal, the sort of a paper boat set floating in a thousand forgettable columns and blog posts. Bound to be swamped by the next wave and never seen again. And while the risk of it being taken seriously is minimal, these TV folks at Fox, they bite, they fall on it snarling as if it were a policy directive from the White House. They hoot and holler, mocking Harris, defending their God-given right to a Santa of their own race. Doing the very thing, passionately, powerfully, that they are condemning her for suggesting mildly, timidly. And they've already got Santa, which, in their mind, settles it. Don't wreck our Santa by making him look like you. 
The Easter Bunny, right, with friend. 
     As if Santa were really, really important. 
     Which maybe he is.
     Then, when other people point out how stupid this is. How ridiculous they are—we're talking about Santa Claus— they collapse in a heap of self-justification. What's the world coming to? Is nothing sacred? We were just joking!
     The response to my reply was noteworthy— enough that I think it's worth a follow-up.  A number of nutbags, such as the guy who sent along a link to Wikipedia's entry on St. Nicholas. Mr. Nutbag writes:
     Read and learn. You can argue all you want, about Santa being mythical character. However, St. Nicholas, (a REAL WHITE PERSON) was the model, for Santa Claus. (log on to info below) 
     Why is that all you politically correct people, have to make certain, that NO ONE----is EVER offended?????

     Heaven help us, if someone/anyone is offended!!!!!!

     Deal with it. St. Nicholas was real and he was-----WHITE!!!!!! DUH!
     Aisha Harris wasn't offended. She simply pointed out that it can be difficult to live in a society where you're the after-thought, and that it might be easy to toss the untermenschen a symbolic bone. And I certainly wasn't offended—very little offends me anymore, and the raving revanchism of the right is too familiar and expected to be offensive at this point. 
     Mr. Nutbag, however, he does seem offended, does he not? All those caps and exclamation points. Do you detect a note of anger in that?  Let's think about this -- high time someone did. Whence this anger? How lousy do you have to feel about yourself, how small your source of  pride, to need to find racial solidarity with Santa Claus? Really, the heart does break. I sympathize with these people, or would, if they weren't so jaw-droppingly dumb. And spiteful. Their meanness drains any sympathy away.
     Although you can be nice and care about this. I received this from Jane Artabasy, of Glenview, who wrote:
     Neil, I love your work and the quality of thought that accompanies it, but this time I have to disagree:  Santa is white.  The fact that he's mythical doesn't change the man's look.  John Stewart says the original was from Turkey, thus somewhat "swarthy."  I always heard it was a northern European/Scandinavian legend.  Either way, the myth is deeply enculturated within us, and the guy is fat and white.
Peter Rabbit, apparently. 
        Also, while not mythological in essence, the presidents on Mt Rushmore were all white, even if that feels terrible to people of color who visit the place.  (Actually, in their sculptured state, they're all sandy in color.  But everyone knows basically what they looked like.)  If we want to keep the discussion bounded by fictional beings, the Easter bunny is white as well, while Peter Rabbit is gray. Of course, both are less burdened with intensive iconography than Santa, to be sure.  In most stories, turtles and frogs are illustrated as green.  Sly foxes are always red.  They just are, even if redheads find that insulting and negatively stereotyping.  It's not about fearing change.  It's about what's worth changing, or even thinking about, given all the real issues that really do depress, repress, and suppress various ethnic groups.
        Of course, there's always the debate about Jesus--an even more hyper-sensitive topic, given that he was real.  Shouldn't we all just agree that Jesus did not look, in any way, Eurocentric?  Not that we have photographs.  But given the geography of his birth, he must have looked Jewish/Middle Eastern, whatever.  Of course, he doesn't fit into the myth category.  The point is, to people primarily interested in the core of his life's message, his physical appearance doesn't really matter. 
        Now, dear Neil, I'm about as far to the left politically as one can go, but this question has me agreeing with Fox. Even sadder:  This silly flap about nothing is giving me a severe identity crisis!  Is this just the beginning of an old-age descent into grumpiness?  (Just so you know, I don't believe in the concept of reparations either, while I'm all for affirmative action. But that's a discussion for another day.)
        Keep up the good work, Mr. S.  I love your columns!  
     Setting aside Mt. Rushmore -- a straw man, postulating some theoretical black person standing aghast at all the whites in history, a not-sly way of diluting the point here. Let's stick with Santa. "The fact that he's mythical doesn't change the man's look." Why not? Are we not free to do with myths as we like? I thought of countering with Barbie. She's notional. She's white, or was. But now Barbie is lots of races, and the world still turns. Barbie was based on a real person, too. If Barbie can suddenly be of color—then why not Santa? Where's the harm?
     Oh right. The harm is to you, to those who want the world to stay exactly the same. But it isn't exactly the same, and really never was the way you think it should always be. 
     Didn't say that though. Instead I addressed Jane's "Easter bunny is white" remark, trying to nudge her toward the important larger issue. I replied: 
     Thanks Jane. But I think you're missing the point—let's return to the Easter-bunny-is-white aspect. Work with me here, because it gets complicated. The Easter bunny came from ... where? Parents imagining a candy-toting rabbit to delight their white kids? We agree, correct? He isn't based on a real rabbit. And as such, he could just as easily be .... oh to pick a random color... a black bunny, to delight black kids. Or a brown bunny. As could Santa. As could Jesus. That's the whole point here. The black kids exist. The Hispanic kids exist. They might arguably want a Santa/Easter Bunny/Jesus in their own image. Fox News sure does. Thanks for writing 
     I'm no fan of self-reference. If you can't appreciate those who aren't like you, it's a very limited life. In an ideal world, we would not need direct physical validation in our idols and icons. But hold the presses: we are not in that ideal world, and people, particularly those still struggling up the bottom rungs of the ladder, like to see someone ahead who looks like they do. It gives them hope. That's probably why Fox viewers are so frantic to keep things exactly as they are, or were—they are on the fringes enough themselves, living mean, small and empty lives in isolated towns in Idaho and Texas and Tennessee, robbed of the placid spirit that not being a fearful twisted fuckhead brings you. They can't bear the thought of losing Santa too. 
     People always assume that these flaps are wastes of time—I tend to assume that. But looking back, I don't know. Maybe they are training wheels for people who never think of the larger world. And maybe they give us practice beating back those who would oppose important changes as well.  It's always good to think about the world, and not just accept things at face value—even Santa. I believe that's what makes these people so angry. Their values are being doubted. Big time. 

Bunny photos courtesy of

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fox News' Jedi Council of Baffled White Folk

     I try not to dive into the latest media tempest-in-a-teapot. First, because by the time I notice them, they're usually just about over. Second, because they're typically stupid and transitory and repetitive. Third, because everybody else has said everything there is to say. And fourth, it happens so often; continuously, really. If I made a point of reacting to nonsense on Fox News, it would be all I'd ever do. But sometimes you just can't resist.   

   Looking for a representative of the authentic black experience in America? Why that would be me. I know what it’s like to grow up in a completely white, middle-class suburb, to see my father come home after a not-so-long day exploring particle physics at a NASA research lab, to have no personal experience of prejudice, to go to new, first-rate schools, then play on a quiet street with my fellow white kids knowing violence was a mere 30 miles away in Cleveland — actually, not knowing, because the concept never crossed our little kickball-obsessed minds.
    OK, so maybe I’m not the voice of authentic black experience. Scratch the “maybe.” Definitely. That’s why, when the subject comes up, I often fall back on an old reporter’s trick called “talking to black people” to find out their perspective on certain subjects. Maybe it’s a newspaper reporter’s trick, because I watched a video of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly defending herself in the kerfuffle over her declaring Santa Claus is white. The Left media, which makes an easy living gleefully marveling at the almost-beyond-parody stupidities of the Right, took this to mean that she is so dumb she doesn’t quite realize that Santa is a mythical character.
     It's worse than that. What really amazed me was ... well, first, a little background.
     This particular cultural snowball was set rolling by a blog post on Slate by Aisha Harris, who says that though her house was filled with dark-skinned Santas "in the form of ornaments, cards and holiday figurines," that this wasn't enough, since she still saw the prevalent, Coke-tray white Santa beyond her home as the authentic one, and thus felt "insecurity and shame" due to this "incredibly powerful image" of a white Santa.
     Gosh. It could by argued that any adult, black or white, whose lingering childhood shame comes from Santa already is way ahead of the game. But she has a point, about what she calls the "whole 'white-as-default' notion endemic to American culture," and suggests that a penguin be substituted for old St. Nick. "People love penguins," she writes.
     Then Kelly and her crew of experts at Fox—whose network slogan might as well be "White-As-Default"— weigh in­, and, since it defies belief, I'll ask our Sun-Times graphics folks to include photographic proof of the panel that Fox assembled to critique this black blogger's opinion. Notice anything odd?
     Incredible, right? You don't have to be black to comment on race. I do it all the time. But I'm one guy. It's another thing to assemble a quartet that looks like four white eggs, then let Kelly mock the idea of cultural inclusion. "I kinda laughed, this is so ridiculous," she said.
     Ha ha. One of her fellow panelists prefaced her remarks by calling Harris' view more "politically correct nonsense," then haltingly suggested that maybe a child of color could possibly feel excluded if cultural icons are of a different race. Perhaps a penguin would makes all children feel more welcome. ...
     "No, no," Kelly insisted. "It makes all birds feel welcome."
     That settles it, huh? You can eat at the lunch counter. But don't mess with our Santa.
     Then Kelly said something that summarizes the entire problem that the Republican Party has, not just with blacks, but with gays, immigrants, the whole shifting modern world that looks less and less like Mayberry.
     "Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," she said. "Jesus was a white man, too. How do you just revise it in the middle of the story and change Santa from white to black?"
     Can't you just see the gears grinding in the dim recesses of Kelly's head? Come on! It's a white, Christian nation! We can't just change!
    At this point I should just end the column because, really, what more need be said?
     But to point out the obvious: We can change, do change, are changing. In 1960, non-Hispanic whites were 85 percent of the U.S. population. In 2060, the figure will be half that. You can fight it, welcome it, ignore it or, like the idiots at Fox News, stare gape-mouthed at it, a chorus of confused, agog, blank faces shrugging at each other on their befuddled white-folk Jedi Council. If you view the self-pitying defense that Kelly aired later, she ends by portraying Fox News as the true victim, as always. They never learn, never change, but that's OK. The world learns, the world changes. Fox and friends don't have to like it or even understand what's coming down the road. Upset about Santa? Ha. Just wait.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Chicago duo revives the gramophone

The challenge of this story was not buying one on the spot, not jumping on Kickstarter, putting down the $250, then circling May on my calendar and waiting. But that's a lot of money for an impulsive purchase. Still, I want to have that horn on my desk. want to listen to music coming out of it. So I'll hold off, for now, just to give myself something to look forward to. 

     Early last January, college friends Pavan Bapu and Jeff Parrish were walking through Wicker Park when they passed an antique store and saw a 1920s Magnavox R3 gramophone in the window.
     "We both did a double take," said Parrish. "We ended up tracking them down on eBay and bought one to play around with it."

     The graceful curving horn was originally made to amplify thick 78 rpm discs. The two, who met at UIC, decided they could do better.

     "We figured out a way to modernize it, to make it suitable for people now," Parrish said. By February they had a prototype: a Bluetooth receiver within a sleek wooden base, attached to the gramophone horn.

     "It was pretty big," said Parrish.

Bapu put some images and a description on a website and 500 people liked it. That got them thinking.

     "What if we scaled this thing down, made it less intimidating, less filling somebody's space?" Parrish said. "We tried out a number of different sizes, and settled on three-quarters [of the original] - big enough to have amplification and presence, and small enough to fit on somebody's table."

     They decided they had something to sell.

     Pavan handled the "nitty-gritty electronic stuff" using knowledge he picked up clerking at Best Buy.

"We created our own proprietary audio driver and printed circuit board inside, acoustically optimized for this product," said Bapu, 27. "So we didn't just do a hack job. We put in something that resonates with the harmonics of this horn."

    Parrish's background is engineering and industrial design; Bapu's is communications. "Between the stuff I know and the stuff Pavan knows, we've got our bases covered," Parrish said. "We both have a good bunch of contacts that we've got from our time in school and from various employment opportunities since then."

     They started out putting drawings online, searching for manufacturers.

     "We got quotes from people around the world. It's pretty cool," Parrish said. "Pavan found people by Googling what we need."

     They need people to give money, for instance. Pavan went on Kickstarter, saw a video he liked and contacted its creator, who produced a video for them. Their Kickstarter campaign went up Nov. 26. In fewer than three weeks, they've raised $120,000; more than their goal. The Gramovox devices cost $299, or $250 for those who contribute on Kickstarter, and they plan to start shipping in the spring.

     As much as I like the design, which I noticed on my Facebook stream, I love that these two guys, who have never started a business before, quickly went from seeing an obscure antique in a window, to manufacturing and selling their own version. "In less than a year we went from concept to prototype to production," Bapu said. That's what our country is about, or should be.

     I wanted to hear it, so I biked over to Pavan's apartment at 11th and State. Pavan played Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." There was a resonance to it. Then Nancy Sinatra singing, "Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)." I'm used to an iPod, which has the acoustics of mud, but you could hear Sinatra forming the consonants - the Bs, the Ds - as if she had her lips against your ear. Then Louis Armstrong, "When You're Smiling." What more perfect way to hear a master's horn than out of the bell of a metal horn?

     I took my iPhone out to see how the Bluetooth aspect works, and within seconds was playing George Gershwin's "Tip-Toes." It filled the room.

     Lest audiophiles descend on me, I should point out it's still a unidirectional 1920s horn. I'm sure any Polk Audio speaker has better acoustics. My perception was no doubt skewed by how much I admire the thing. There's a wonderful aesthetic to the horn, and I'm the son of a radio operator, who has, displayed in my office, his Turner X-22 crystal microphone and his chrome-plated Vibroplex telegraph key, because they're lovely, to me.

     Whether the world will find the Gramovox Bluetooth Gramophone lovely too, well, we'll find out in a few months. They ship in May. I can see it as the big audio gift of Christmas 2014 because it looks so good, sounds crisp, doesn't cost all that much and points society back to a place it used to be: where you listened to music with other people, together, out of a curving horn.

     They've raised more than $130,000 on Kickstarter, well more their goal. You can see their complete fundraising presentation and excellent video by clicking here.

Pavan Bapu, with the Gramovox. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Lights on but nobody home

There are very few blogs that I make a point to look at on a regular basis, and one of my favorites is Messy Nessy Chic. Written by Vanessa Grail, a young Briton living in Paris, it has a wonderful aesthetic, looking at the obscure, the decaying, the forgotten and submerged. I wrote a column about her last spring and she was kind enough, when she went overseas for Christmas, to allow me to write a post for her blog. This is the beginning of the post I wrote, which went up on her site Friday. If you click the link at the end, you'll be taken to Messy Nessy Chic, and can see how she does it, plus find a lot more pictures.

     Chicago is justly famous for its architecture. Birthplace of the skyscraper, home to the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere (still, the emotion-driven claim by New York’s One World Trade Center, based on the dodge of calling an antenna a spire, is easily dismissed) Chicago offers a panorama of architectural marvels. So many icons that you usually have to live here before you start noticing structures that are not famous and important, but merely intriguing and fun. Such as the charming little fake buildings that electrical company Commonwealth Edison puts up to camouflage its  substations.
     It can take a while, walking past, until you realize that the front doors don’t open. Or what look like windows are actually louvers. What is that? you wonder. And what is it doing there?
     The most noteworthy, a faux Georgian mansion in the River North area of downtown, was designed by perhaps the city’s most famous living architect, Stanley Tigerman, former director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
     “The building is somewhat tongue-in-cheek , a bit of a joke,” said Tigerman, who had first designed a restaurant just west of the site. “The Hard Rock Cafe: fake stucco, fake Georgian, nothing real about it. Then they came to me and wanted me to do the ComEd substation next door, but to be contextual, to relate it to this ersatz piece of junk.”
     So rather than construct a bogus building based on a fake, albeit one he designed, Tigerman cut the other direction....

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