Monday, January 7, 2019

Ed Burke grew tired of waiting for his next golden egg

     Oh Ed, Ed, Ed, what is it with you rich guys? You're sitting astride a money machine, chugging away, day after day, year after year, pumping cash directly into your fat accounts. But it just doesn't pump fast enough—is that the problem?
     No. That isn't it. What happens is, you get careless as the years roll on. Holding the honking, flapping goose jammed under one arm, waiting for something shiny to crown. You get impatient, standing there, choking on loose feathers, with your cupped hand, poised beneath its struggling bottom. You just want to move the process along. So you start to work your fingers in, try to get a handhold on that slippery sucker and pull the golden egg out.

     Into a federal wiretap. With Burger King. Over a driveway.
     Of course. It's always something trivial. Crystal and chairs and postage stamps in Dan Rostenkowski's basement. Mr. Chairman also went down after huffing power and money for so long it made him lightheaded.
     The charge isn't trivial: attempted extortion. Though to me, the crime is what's legal: the cosiness of our leaders and big money already violates the public interest on a normal day, no chargeable crimes committed. The guys running the city do business with the businesses they're supposed to be monitoring. The standard of excellence being: no quid pro quo. So long as you don't speak the words, "Give me the money and I'll do whatever you want," clearly, into an FBI wiretap.
     You don't have to say it. They know what to do. Manus manum lavat. It should be on the city seal. "One hand washes the other."
     Ed Burke belongs on the seal too, instead of the baby. He is a minor Chicago landmark, and I'd be sorry to see him go, sort of. Not Field's but Carson's. Not the Water Tower but Water Tower Place. You might not ever go there anymore—who does?—but you'd still hate to see the thing torn down.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

'Up against the wall'

Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 by James McNeill Whistler

    "Bullies don't win," Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told a cheering room of supporters Thursday night, recalling something she told her son. "We're going to go in and impeach the motherfucker."
     An informal remark, not an official statement. But the all-important video was taken, and the first Palestinian-American member of the House was instantly the talk of Washington, along with her use of the king of George Carlin's famed Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. 
     The obscenity caught notice, particularly, of Republicans ever eager to play the victim and fixate upon someone who seems more vile than themselves. Though to me, the ... well not offensive, but regrettable part of the statement was not the multi-syllabic obscenity, but the word that came before: "impeach."  Trump's high crimes and misdemeanors are of yet undocumented, and should impeachment come, it is hoped that it can be in the sense of patriotic duty and seriousness of purpose entirely lacking in the GOP, not tossed out in a moment of profane exuberance. Rep. Tlaib reminds us, as if it were necessary between anti-vaxxers and safe spaces, that the right wing does not hold a monopoly on bush league ridiculousness.
     The New York Times bit the bullet and printed the word, undashed in a front page story on Saturday, though let it rip at the end of the 11th paragraph, deep inside the paper.
     Needless to say, this is not the first time the word has been used, and curiosity sent me reaching for my well-worn Second Supplement Edition of Wentworth and Flexner's "Dictionary of American Slang," only to initially find it missing—no separate entry, no usage note after "fuck . [taboo] v.t. To cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly..." 
    Nothing where it rightfully belong, before "Mother Machree" (defined as "an alibi; a sad story, usu. fictitious or exaggerated told to elicit sympathy, avoid punishment, etc." a useful word to have in the verbal arsenal when dealing with our president).
     This couldn't be, not in a book published in 1975. And sure enough, there it was, tucked into the appendix of  "terms that have come into use since 1967:" "motherfucker [taboo] 1 a low, despicable, base person. This is now the most derog. of all common U.S. epithets."
     The note goes on, tracing mother-based obscenities to Spanish-speaking countries, then this pops out, "The dislike may apply to any characteristic: selfishness, rudeness, laziness, unethical behavior, etc." which makes me suspect that, rather than being criticized for her crudity, Rep. Tlaib should be lauded for her precision: the right tool for the right task.
      Flexner (who wrote the appendix; Wentworth died in 1965) traces the word to African-American argot, spread to the general population through military service in World War II, and points out that it replaced the weakening "son of a bitch."
    But that's a mere foretaste to the full treatment found in Oxford University Press' highly useful (though timidly-titled) "The F-Word," edited by Jesse Sheidlower, whose dozen page exegesis on "motherfucker" begins with a memorable usage from 1918, cited in a letter in Journal of American History of all places: "You low-down Mother Fuckers can put a gun in our hands but who is able to take it out?" Full examination is given to the term as a compliment, particularly among people of color, including this, spoken by a Puerto Rican drug dealer, overheard by John Cheever and recorded in a 1971 letter: "Oh what a cool motherfucker was that Machiavelli."
     I have to admit, it isn't a word that I can recall ever using myself—I blame those four syllables, which are a lot to squeeze out in the highly-charged situations where it might be used. Though now that I reflect, in my mouth the word would also carry an echo of cultural appropriation. Samuel L. Jackson can use it in "Pulp Fiction;" I can't.  (Not only can Jackson use it, he does, 26 times in the film, conveying the full range from compliment to insult, often in the same exchange. "You're a smart motherfucker, that's right," he says to Brett, interrupted his Big Kahuna Burger breakfast toward the beginning of the movie then, when Brett is slow to answer a question: "English, motherfucker! Do you speak it?")
     That should suffice for our purposes for today.
     Though I should note, in parting: George Carlin was wrong. Not only could you say "motherfucker" on television, but three years before he first performed that bit, someone already had—Grace Slick, singing with the Jefferson Airplane on the Dick Cavett Show on Aug. 19, 1969, the day after Woodstock.
     During the song "We Can Be Together"—at about 3:58 in the video—she sings the word once, and, for you fans of irony, I will post a little context. Lyricist Paul Kantner said he was inspired by the popular Black Panther battle cry:
     Up against the wall
     Up against the wall, motherfucker
     Tear down the wall.
     Tear down the wall. 
      She sings it clear as day.
      Which brings to mind another song, this one by Peter Allen:
      "Everything Old is New Again."

Saturday, January 5, 2019

'She belongs somewhere else'

     I was researching Monday's column and came across this, from a decade ago, and realized it had never been posted on my blog. Which it should be, because it is one of those columns where a simple practical matter—what to do with this woman's ashes?—uncovers a tangled history of human emotion, from the homeless man sneaking into the factory where he once worked to sleep to the currency exchange owner in his tiny bulletproof cell kept company by a dead woman in a shopping bag. Among the odd things I've done in this job—talked to people smoking crack on Lower Wacker Drive, watched a breast lift performed, sat in the back seat of a sheriff's car with a hooker, waiting for her to proposition me—having this lady's urn on the corner of my desk ranks right up there.

     Neva Evans has spent most of the last decade in a Jewel shopping bag tucked away in the cluttered back room at the Ashland-Diversey Currency Exchange.
     Or at least her earthly remains have, ashes in a funerary jar with a mother-of-pearl finish.
     "Good morning, Neva," the owner of the currency exchange, Arnie Berezin, would say as he begins each day at 5 a.m.—which he does, seven days a week, cashing checks and issuing money orders in a tiny alcove decorated with business cards and rolls of coins. A $400 money order costs 85 cents.
     "I'm a nickel-and-dime business," says Berezin, 62. "We don't get rich here."
     The ashes were given to him by a customer, Michael H. Evans, about eight years ago. Mike Evans had worked at Chicago Transparent Products, a nearby plastic bag factory on Paulina. He liked sports, he liked Stephen King novels and he liked beer, but he adored his wife. Then Neva Evans died after an asthma attack.
     "His whole life revolved around his wife, his whole life revolved around his job, in a couple years, first he lost his wife, then he lost his job," says Berezin. "He started drinking heavy and that was the last we saw of him."
     For a while, Evans lived in the old abandoned factory where he once worked —he would sneak in at night to sleep there.
     "Mike Evans was a good guy," says Berezin, choking back tears. "He just never bounced back. The last we heard, he was walking up and down Paulina. He was a lost soul."
     Berezin is the opposite of a lost soul -- he knows exactly who is he and what he does. His parents owned a grocery store on the Southwest Side—he used to work at the store, but they sold it and in May 1973, he bought this currency exchange. The space he spends 13 hours a day behind thick bulletproof glass is maybe two feet deep and six feet across.
     "Cells are bigger," he says. "This is my cell. Some people think I'm crazy, but I put two kids through college."
     He has no employees. Since 1973 the exchange has been closed exactly one day—his father's funeral in 2003.
     He has no hobbies. He never thought about trying to expand.
     "No, I was always comfortable here," he says. "I'm not much of a risk taker."
     Berezin would give Mike Evans $5 or $10 sometimes—not a standard currency exchange practice.
     "I felt heartbroken for him," says Berezin, who calls his customers "kiddo" and tries to help them navigate the economic paperwork they thrust at him through the well-worn metal trough.
     "He cares about a lot of his customers," says Berezin's wife, Sara. "A lot of them depend on him. The economy's bad, some people are really having a hard time. Some can't read, they can't handle money. He tries to help them out."
     One day Mike Evans came in toting a shopping bag. "He said, 'Arnie, could I leave this bag in here?' '' remembers Berezin.
     "I couldn't say 'No' to him. He was a good customer and he was homeless."
     Neva Evans stayed. Mike Evans never came back
     "I always hoped Mike would walk in this door and it never happened," Berezin says. "If he's alive, I'd like to know why he never came back here, because he loved her."
     Over the years, Berezin has called funeral homes, to no avail.
     "I tried everything," he says. "Nobody would take it off my hands."
     But he just couldn't throw the ashes out.
     "It doesn't belong in a Dumpster," he says. "It's a person."
     Lately, he has been worrying about what will happen to Neva.
     "I'm not going to live forever," he says. "This place is not going to be here forever. What's going to happen to that bag? I tell people and they laugh at me, and ask, 'Why don't you toss it away?' Well, what if that was your mother? What if that was your daughter? I just couldn't do that."
     He asks me to take the urn with me, saying, "It doesn't belong here. It belongs somewhere else, with family members or buried. It doesn't belong at the back of a currency exchange. It doesn't belong here."
     As I am leaving, Berezin tears up again, and says goodbye to the urn. I ask if he is certain he really wants me to take it.
     "She doesn't deserve to be on a concrete floor," he says. "She belongs somewhere else, other than here. That's a human being in there."
     I take the ashes home and set them on the corner of my desk, then find out what I can about the woman inside.
     Neva Louise Grace Evans was born in Philadelphia, Miss., on Sept. 4, 1948, to George and Maudine Grace. Her family came to Chicago, and she graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1966. She married Michael H. Evans in 1985 and died at the age of 51 on April 9, 2000.
     She had three daughters from a previous marriage—Lisa Grace, of Alpharetta , Ga.; Michelle Grace and Felicia Grace; plus two sisters, Patricia Baker and Iris Heard, and a brother, Dwayne Adams. Any kin are invited to contact me at the newspaper. The earthly remains of Neva Evans will be waiting for you, in a funerary jar with a mother-of-pearl finish.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 11, 2009

I won't leave you hanging. Two days later, I published this:


     Many readers contacted me after Wednesday's story about the sojourn of Neva Evans' ashes at the Ashland-Diversey Currency Exchange. Some knew her and reflected on what a lovely lady she was. Some were funeral home directors, offering a spot for the urn.
     One was Danny Evans, who put me in touch with his brother, Mike Evans, the man who left his wife's remains eight years ago.
     "I did go into hell," he said. "I've lived in shelters. I wasn't in Chicago. I couldn't find a job here for a long time, so I hitchhiked down to South Carolina and Florida. I came back; I'm recently moved in with a girl and have a part-time job. I forgot all about this. I'm sick to my stomach about it. I should have never forgotten about her, but you lose track of pretty much everything . . ."
     That's where we should draw the veil, except to add that I also heard from Neva Evans' sister and her three daughters.
     "No one knew until your article," said daughter Lisa Grace. I'll be handing the urn over to them this morning. "Now she's back with her girls," said Grace.
     Memento homo quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.

     That last sentence will require no translation for Catholics, who hear it as ashes are smeared on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday: "Remember O man you are dust, unto dust you shall return."

Egyptian canopic jars, late period. These actually did not contain ashes, but the organs of the deceased,  removed for mummification (Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Friday, January 4, 2019

Trump's border wall completed in latest triumph for president

     NOGALES, Arizona —The massive border wall demanded by President Donald Trump was completed today, spanning the United States’ entire 2,000 mile southern border with an impenetrable defense against the disease, filth and criminality brought by immigrants.
     Twenty feet high, made of reinforced concrete topped with gleaming spikes, it represents a stupendous achievement both in the speed in which it was built — less than two years since the president took office — and for its financing: the entire $42 billion dollar cost borne by the nation of Mexico.
     “We defer to the inexorable will of President Donald Trump,” said Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, signing a check for the final payment. “This should help our neighbor to the north remain unviolated by illegal entry of the criminals and rapists that Mexico creates in such profusion.”
     The governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, wielded a trowel and tapped in the final, ceremonial gold-plated brick, then declared a statewide Day of Jubilee to mark the occasion, giving governmental workers a paid vacation to “enjoy their families, now free from the threat of being murdered by invasive hordes of Guatemalan refugees” and praised the clear eye and firm hand of Trump for bringing about this …


     There, that should do it. Trump is famous for his brief attention span. By now he’ll have looked up, beaming, and been distracted by a shiny object. Clip the above and send it to the White House, congratulating Trump on his stunning success. Or, better, tweet it to him. Problem solved.

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Thursday, January 3, 2019

"You ordered THAT?!"

Paladar, 2252 N. Western, has china displayed, a tribute to the old Cuban custom of giving gifts of china to married couples.

     The house is filled with boys again, sprawled on the sofa, watching television, leaving their shoes by the door, whipping up unexpected recipes—Russian baked milk, Japanese pancakes, mulled wine. I was in the kitchen, preparing something when one sentence spoken by my older son cut through the clatter.
      "Complaining is part of the fun," he said.
     I stopped what I was doing, carefully dried my hands on my apron, and briskly walked around the island.
     "That's my son," I said, smiling and kissing him on the head.
     It's true. Not that a person wants to point out the negative. It's just natural. And joyous, in that it is enjoyable. The scratching of an itch, a sense of justice served, of truth defended.
     That said, this is not a complaint. I want to be clear. I almost didn't write the following, because I did not want to be seen as complaining.  It is not a criticism; more of a marvel, the sharing of a wonder.
    Last month, my wife and I swung by Tony Fitzpatrick's gallery for a couple openings one Friday after work, and thought we'd grab a late dinner afterward. I examined the options north on North Western Avenue between the gallery and the Kennedy, and settled on Paladar Restaurant and Rum Club. Cuban food, mmm—tasty and not found on every street corner in Chicago.
     The cheery, brightly lit room was utterly empty when we arrived at 8:45 p.m., and the owner greeted us with warmth and sat us at a prime table, explaining the specials of the night. The Carne al Carbon, very good, he said, a speciality of the house.
    I admit, I do not always attend carefully to the rendition of specials the way I should. I like to keep my own counsel. Sort of listening with one ear while scanning the menu with the other....
     Wait a second...
     You get my point. Anyway, he left, we ordered our drinks—homemade limeade, always a good sign. The waitress was friendly and efficient. I ordered the palomilla, a marinated top sirloin, thinly-sliced and covered with onions. I like onions. The meal came. We set to eating. Yum. The owner drifted by to check things out, looked at my plate. His face fell, he said something that nobody associated with a restaurant has ever said to me in a lifetime of vigorous restaurant patronage, a sentiment that I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.
     "You ordered that?!" he said, aghast.
    I explained that I happen to like onions. I did not add that the speciality of the house he recommended cost $22.95 and, economical man that I am, this seemed a solid value at $16.95 and something I would like just as much if not more. I ended up nearly apologizing for my order, promising that I would certainly order the special upon my return.
     And I will. It was good food well-served in a fun setting. I waited nearly a month to relay this, because I wanted to assess, in my own mind, whether I was criticizing the place. I hope I'm not—honestly, I was delighted with his remark. It spoke of passion, of knowledge of their menu, and that invariably some dishes are better than others. Not to mention that rarest of all qualities nowadays: candor.
     Paladar was not crowded for late on a Friday—another couple came in during the hour we were there, and two guys sat at the bar. I bet the place is a really good time, particularly if you can partake of their extensive rum menu. So you should definitely consider checking the restaurant out. And if you do, take my advice: keep the menu closed. Pay attention, then order the special, whatever it is.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

‘People come into focus’ — New Yorker sophistication crafted at Chicago landmark


     Tom Bachtell could work at home.
     “I could,” he agrees. “But I’d hate it. I’d feel so alone.”
    So despite his boss being 800 miles away in New York City, to do his job Bachtell leaves his home in Lincoln Square and travels to the South Loop, to his studio on the 14th floor of the Monadnock Building. 
   “I love going into the 7-11,” he said. “I love seeing all the crazy people there. It’s sort of a latter-day-form vaudeville.”
     Bachtell has a singular profession. He is an artist for The New Yorker. For 30 years, he has drawn the elegant caricatures that grace the magazine.
   I met him through his late spouse, Andrew Patner, immediately inviting myself to his studio. After about five years of pestering, he agreed. We talked about his growing up in Ohio, coming here, becoming a couple with Patner, the Sun-Times music critic and beloved WFMT host who died in 2015.
     “I thought about the world we came from in Cleveland, what we made of it, and then coming to Chicago and gradually becoming a part of the world here,” Bachtell said, as soft classical music burbled in the background. “And how fortuitous it was I met Andrew, and  how we were doing similar things. Andrew integrated me into Chicago and taught me how to love Chicago. When I met Andrew, I fell in love with him like that.”      

     He snapped his fingers.
     “He was an engaged person, constantly trying to engage with the world. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
     I pointed out that outsiders have a way of coming to Chicago and finding fascination.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Oak Park native Robert T. Fanning Jr., friend of elk, foe of wolves, dead at 69

Bob Fanning
    Among the many benefits of being friends with Rick Telander has been getting to know some of his friends. One of the more distinctive is Rory Fanning, whom Rick met when the former Army Ranger was walking across the United States to benefit the foundation of his late buddy, Pat Tillman. 
     When Rory's father passed away last week, he contacted me, looking for someone at the paper to write the obit. Of course I volunteered. It was interesting to learn about his father's complicated life. Not everything can be worked into an obit, and there was one aspect that never made it onto the page, but is worth mentioning here. Rory and his dad had some rocky times in their relationship—I don't think I'm speaking out of school saying that; a lot of fathers and sons do, I certainly did. But when his dad passed, Rory stepped up and tried to present him in his best possible light, and to make sure people knew about him the way he wanted to be known. Not every child writing an obit does that. Holding a grudge is so easy many people do without considering there is another path, but Rory stood up for his dad at the end, even though his dad wasn't always standing behind him, and I admire that.  I've learned a lot from knowing Rory—he's a marketing executive at Haymarket Books, and doesn't accept the truisms of American life that I do, or did. But I think this moment gave me something that I'm going to value and try to apply in my own life.

     Bob Fanning not only ran with the wolves, he liked to kill them.
     “He was a man’s man, a bear hunter, a horseback rider, there was no one like Bob,” said his lifelong friend, Frank Murnane, owner of the Murnane Cos. “They broke the mold with Bob Fanning; one of a kind, in all respects.”
     Fanning’s lifelong animosity toward wolves came from a desire to protect elk, as founder of Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd. In one of those epic battles that roil the great expanse of the West, between federal power and state authority, between environmentalists and ranchers, you knew exactly where Bob Fanning stood.
     “Lock and load and saddle up while there is still snow on the ground,” Fanning declared, after the governor of Montana encouraged local ranchers to shoot troublesome wolves on their property in 2011, the year Fanning ran for Montana governor, part of a pack of Republican hopefuls, though he did not win.
     As to how an Oak Park native, graduate of Holy Cross High School in River Forest, ended up in Big Sky Country, well therein lies the tale of Robert T. Fanning Jr., 69, who died on Christmas Eve, in Billings, Montana.
     He was born in 1949, one of six brothers — Danny, Kevin, Brian, Quinn and Tim, and a sister, Mary. Their father, Robert T. Fanning Sr, was a stockbroker who owned Fanning Shoes in Oak Park, and mother Ann was a homemaker.
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