Monday, January 14, 2019

Phyllis Smith was a good bartender and a great friend

Phyllis Smith, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jim Edgar at the Taste of Chicago. Sam Sianis is at center.

     “How’s the family?”
     Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
     Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
     I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
     But you, Phyllis, how are you?
     “Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
     Yes, she had.
     Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
     “A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”  

    And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
     Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
     Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
     But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
     “She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Churchill in Chicago


     When we were small, my mother had an expression she used to suspend our frenzied searches for some missing toy:
      "You'll find it when you're not looking for it."
      Cold, comfort, if I recall, when Lucky Pup had gone AWOL. But there is a certain truth, particularly when it comes to those odd bits of information that resist solving instantly on Google.
      For instance: I keep a ragtag assemblage of historical figures in the back of my mind I call "People Who You Don't Think of as Visiting Chicago." They consist of personages who are somehow difficult to picture on Chicago streets: Oscar Wilde, Col. George Armstrong Custer, Dylan Thomas, Golda Meir, who lived here.  Charles Dickens almost got here, but St. Louis was a bigger deal when he made his vaunted visit to American in 1842, so he went there instead, setting foot in Illinois only at Cairo.
     I had always included Winston Churchill on the list, though couldn't put my finger on any evidence. He got around a lot, particularly as a young man. It made sense.
     On Thursday I had lunch with a pal at the Union League Club, in their soaring Lincoln Ballroom. I admired the rich blue walls, and felt that whatever drudgery life consisted of, at the moment I was sailing in style. At one point, during our mutual exchange of dire observations about our troubled mutual profession, I swept the room with my hand and observed: "On the other hand, we're here now!"
     They make you check your coat at the Union League Club, and afterward, I retrieved mine. It was cold and I planned on hiking over to Iwan Ries, to fill the time before the train with the consolation of a cigar. I paused just before the revolving door to put on my gloves and hat and zip up.
    And my gaze fell upon this plaque.
    Well, there we go. Complete with the photographic proof offered above. As I typed the part about Google not being helpful, I thought I had better do that check-it-out reportorial thing, and instantly came to this detailed historical assessment of Churchill's three, count 'em, three visits to Chicago, in 1901, 1929 (when he stayed at The Drake) and 1932.
     Hmmm...the article was posted in 2006: no doubt my curiosity about Churchill dates to long before then. I seem to remember riffling through the index of a few thick Churchill biographies, looking for a Chicago reference.
     Mere trivia? Perhaps. Though I don't think it's a stretch to use it to raise a larger question related to the immediate knowability of things. Could the shaky role that verifiable fact plays in our current political woes somehow be related to the ease with which truth can be ascertained? Economics tells us that abundance is inversely proportional to value. When facts were difficult to dredge up and verify, they were held in regard. They had high worth. Now that the truth is in each of our pockets, on our cell phones, 24 hours a day, they seem less substantial, and more and more people turn to their own private fantasies, which of course have less abundance, and thus perhaps more perceived worth, because they are rare, sometimes unique, having been freshly made up. An interesting possibility.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #22

     Look at the photo above. What do you see? A jazz quartet, right? 
     The quartet performing last Saturday consisted of Nickolas Kaplan, on trumpet, Kevin Fort, on piano, John Sutton on bass at Chad Willetts on drums.
     But sitting in for a few songs—or rather standing, looking through the window was John Mondlak, the man in the white beard at right. More about him later.
     My wife had been talking about going to Le Piano for a long time, the new jazz place that has opened up in East Rogers Park in the old No Exit space, and we crowded into a prime booth—the Frank Sinatra Booth. The place has been open a month.
     A few thoughts.
     First, it's a lovely space: high ceilinged, inviting, with that wall of windows. Music every night. A $5 cover charge (which I notice people on Yelp still somehow manage to complain about. What do they want it to be, a dollar? Can you even imagine that. The doorman stopping you: "It's a dollar to get in." Yelp, I swear, I should create a Yelp page for Heaven, if it hasn't been done yet. "The Pearly Gates gave off a glowing luminescence that I found unpleasant. And the glissando of harps welcoming the saved into their eternal reward kept me up at night....")
     Second, a good vibe. The drummer, Chad Willetts, is also one of the owners, and at one point he made a little speech, and greeted the crowd and led the room into a round of "Happy Birthday" to someone celebrating a birthday. The room was crowded and the service sporadic, but adequate.         
     Third, the food. We contrived to eat dinner there, ordering the various small plates and trying to assemble them into a meal. I'd advise against that. Drinks and snacks is a more suitable use, at least while the kitchen works out its kinks. The wine was very good, I am told. The charcuterie plate could have used a pot of mustard, or something, though the cheeses were good. The fingerling potatoes were very good, the steak, less so. An $8 (or $5, or whatever it costs) loaf of bread should be better than what was served up. But they just opened, and no doubt are getting the kinks out.
      Fourth, returning to Mr. Mondlak—at least that's what I thought his name was. Communication was difficult. I asked him about the music and he mumbled something incoherent. The only word I caught was "Beatles." I asked him if he had anything he wanted to communicate to the public, and he said, "God is love. God is the totality of the universe." Makes as much sense as anything.
     East Rogers Park is a gritty area, and there are those who would lump the opening of Le Piano as the dread "gentrification." First, that is premature, judging by the active and highly varied street life passing by.  Second, a right extended to one should be enjoyed by all, and if any random person can show up and lay claim to a piece of real estate and call it home, then the owners of Le Piano should be able to do the same, despite the role of money and mortgages and vigorous effort.
      If you didn't see Mr. Mondlak in your initial glimpse of the picture, don't be too hard on yourself. There's a lot of that. When he was at the window, I had a hard time seeing anything else, and eventually went outside to talk with him, or try to. He stood there for a long time, listening, and I can't say I blame him. Chicago has only a few small jazz venues: Andy's downtown, The Green Mill in Uptown. Tough competition, now that I think of them, but Le Piano makes an encouraging start. With the Heartland closing a block away, a reminder that the city grows, changes, moves on, and we change with it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

We know Donald Trump lies a lot, but why?

     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     An interesting question, not often asked, despite the Trump era being a Golden Age of Deception, a veritable Liapalooza, with the president telling a dozen fibs a day, or more. Lying so predictably that before his address to the nation Tuesday, dramatizing his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, the networks struggled to form a plan to address the rain of falsehoods certain to come. Fact checkers were standing by to refute the lies before they were uttered, the way that color commentators are in place to describe the action sure to unfold on a football field.
     But is this the only way lying can be handled? The media, with its dumb ox tendency to strain forward, plowing the rut it always plows, has for years kept careful track of each presidential untruth, counting them, tallying them up, as if points will be awarded at the end.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     While keeping score, the process of lying, itself, its utility, is rarely addressed. We prefer to shake our head at each one-that-got-away whopper, and ponder whether it is a deliberate, cynical fabrication or sincere delusion, as if that really matters.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     Yes, it is important to refute Donald Trump’s specific lies. Most immigrants, illegal or legal, are more law-abiding than natural-born citizens, despite the horror stories the president recited. Most drugs come through airports or checkpoints, hidden in cars and trucks, not across the desert. Most terrorists arrive on a plane or, let us never forget, are native born.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”

     The above question was posed in September, 1973, by Jerome Doolittle, a government spokesman during the Vietnam War. He continued:
     "When I first arrived in Laos, I was instructed to answer all press questions about our massive and merciless bombing campaign in that tiny country with: 'At the request of the Royal Laotian Government, the United States is conducting unarmed reconnaissance flights accompanied by armed escorts who have the right to return if fired upon.'"
     I have been returning to the Vietnam era as an ironic source of comfort. Because as hall-of-mirrors crazy as the Trump era without question is, the harm so far is mostly spiritual and symbolic. It could be worse. Trump's lies have not killed 57,000 Americans, the way Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's did.
     Doolittle categorized his response to the press this way:
     "This was a lie. Every reporter to whom I told it knew it was a lie. Hanoi knew it was a lie. The International Control Commission knew it was a lie. Every interested Congressman and newspaper reader knew it was lie."
     We find ourselves in a similar situation. Trump certainly knows that the misinformation he is delivering, into a chorus of correction, is false. His aides know it. The media knows it. His base, if they do not seem to know it, are highly incurious as to what the truth might be.
     Which leads to Doolittle's answer:
     "After all, the lies did serve to keep something from somebody and the somebody was us."
     Bingo. The assumption about lies is they are uttered to deceive others, and that does happen. But they also have a far-less recognized function: lies deceive the liar, or, rather, help the liar maintain a charade.
     In Trump's case, lies are not a flaw but a feature. They are mandatory. The Mexico wall began as a popular talking point on his campaign, a way to get the crowds to chant and cheer and give the love that this miserable, emotionally-stunted man obviously craves. In his dismal failure of a presidency, this wall—which no one actually wants, including himself—has taken on a weird totemic power. It is his triumph, or will be, if he can actually push it through, greased by the suffering of 800,000 federal employees and the nation they serve. And so he lies—about a non-existent crisis on the border, about immigrants who, with each addition, make our country less violent, not more; better, not worse; richer, not poorer. The truth isn't an option for him and his followers, and so they build an ever more convoluted wall of lies trying to block it out. They don't see the truth because they can't. The light would blind them.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Instant communication anywhere in the world"

     Years ago, walking across the Orleans Street Bridge, I passed a homeless man slumped before a styrofoam cup. In his hand, a cell phone. 
     It seemed a significant moment, since mobile phones, when they first showed up, were accessories of the rich. It was considered arrogant just to take one out and make a call. To be seen doing it, in a public place like a restaurant, as if you were so important you couldn't wait to make your phone calls in private. As if you wanted everyone to see and admire you. 
     So this homeless person having a phone, well, it seemed a symbolic shift, an elephant step toward our then-unimaginable world where every 7-year old, every Somalian fisherman, every one almost everywhere has a cell phone. (Not quite. This year the world count of cell phones is expected to hit 5 billion, meaning some 65 percent of the earth's population has one).
     This was before I was in the habit of snapping photos of such things. Nor did I have the presence of mind to talk to the homeless man, try to find out who he was calling. Now I can't even recall the year.
     I've come to regret that lapse, and vowed to not let similar technological turning points slip by unnoticed. 
     So I have to point out what happened in the Steinberg household Saturday: We gave up our land line. That is not the newsworthy part, in fact, we are late to it.  In 2016, for the first time in the better part of a century, since the number of telephones exploded between the world wars, more U.S. households were without a land line—50.8 percent—than had one.  
     The noteworthy part, to me, is not that it happened, but that it was so unexceptional. As nostalgic as I am, or was, the decision was a no brainer. Losing the landline saved us close to $500 a year. The only calls we got were scam artists, charities, and scam charities ... and my mother, who smoothly transitioned over to calling my cell, something she had already learned to do when I wasn't at home.
     In the days since, I've adapted easily myself. A few small changes—mainly carrying my iPhone around more at home, in case somebody calls. The portable phone stations—we had three—are in a pile, ready to be dumped in the bin on electronics drop-off day at the Village hall. 
     AT&T was smooth and efficient—not only did we cut our landline, but we lost cable, which required installation of fiber optic lines for broadband. Their guy was out for hours, unfailingly polite, explaining what he was doing, trying to build a relationship.
     Yes, I still have my trusty black rotary dial phone on my desk, the handset embossed "BELL SYSTEM PROPERTY: NOT FOR SALE Western Electric." Bought for $5 on eBay, years ago. I used to be able to dial out, not so long ago. The thing was probably made in Chicago, home to the giant Western Electric Hawthorne works, that at one time employed 45,000 people (the Eastland disaster, remember, was on a Western Electric company outing).
     I think I'll keep it there, for a little while longer anyway, symbol of ... what? I'm not sure anymore. Of the transitional telephone generation I represent: arriving after party lines, toward the end of alphanumeric phone exchanges—dial CAlumet 5-6969—and before princess phones and push button dialing. Long distance was a big deal, and expensive, and there were human operators you could dial, part of the mystery and romance to the phone company.
     And danger, a sense of menace from The Phone Company, or TPC, for those who remember "The President's Analyst," an unfairly forgotten 1967 James Coburn vehicle—unfairly because it was ahead of its time, in that it postulated a troubled president, and an insidious gun culture. Running from the various shady forces trying to get him, Coburn hides out with a typical America family, the Quantrills.
     "These are liberal times," the dad intones, darkly, before his son bursts in brandishing a .357 Magnum, earning this delicious paternal rebuke: "Darn it Bing, I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house, that is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now put that right back in the glove compartment...."
    Bigger than governments and intelligence agencies, the all-powerful The Phone Company, is hoping to implant micro-telephones directly into your brain.
    "Why all you have to do is think the number of the person you wish to speak with an you are instant communication anywhere in the world," marvels TPC's leader.
     They couldn't know that, with computers, the numbers themselves would no longer be necessary, once they were plugged in and attached to a name. At least we still have names. For the moment. 

The President's Analyst, starring James Coburn, center.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Chicago's past is on line 2, eager to gum the wounded Ed Burke

     "Is this Robert Cooley?"
     "That was one of my many, many names," said the man on the phone.
     Not a good start. I never watched "The Sopranos," never romanticized the Capone era. It was brutal and bloody. There was something sad about my older colleagues who, you could tell, got a contact high from their association with gangland Chicago, basked in coining nicknames and listing aliases.
     And now I've got The Man of A Thousand Faces on the line...
     Since most won't remember, a quick refresher: It was Cooley who in 1986 went to the feds and began taping conversations at the Counsellors Row restaurant, an ice pick to the heart of the mobbed-up 1st Ward. This led to the Justice Department`s Operation Gambat, flipping over a rock of extortion, bribery and fixed murder cases.
     A reader took issue with my describing Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke as "the platinum bar of probity" and shared passages from Cooley's book, "When Corruption Was King," painting the Burkes as, well, if not quite Bonnie & Clyde, then in that direction of the moral spectrum. Active carnivores in the fetid swamp of early 1980s Chicago.
     I told Cooley I was all ears.
   "These things happened 20, 25 years ago," he began, shaving off a decade. "Eddie Burke and his wife Anne were very good friends of mine."
     Based on our conversation, my hunch is they aren't friends any more.
     Corruption is like rust. It spreads, both coming and going. When the party's on and the lights are low, lots of people wander into the dim tent to help themselves at the long tables of pie. When the lights are snapped on, those same people are caught standing there with pie on their faces. It's almost comical to see the casting call of mayoral candidates lunging for napkins to smear away Ed Burke's money, or try to. It'll be interesting to see how long that stain lingers around their mouths.  
     Talking to Cooley, I realized the Ed Burke extortion case will not only send shock waves through the current political scene; it also will crack open the past, and out will crawl denizens of the Mesozoic such as Robert Cooley.
     Talking to him was like listening to a record. I would try to direct the conversation, ask questions. That was like lifting the needle. The music stopped. There was a silence. Then the needle was set down again and he'd continue where we left off. Nor was what he was saying a font of fascination.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What fresh, cute Hell is this?

     The Divine Comedy of Dante Allighieri has been in print, continuously, for longer than there has been print to be in: nearly 700 years, starting with hand-copied editions in Italian (titled, simply, "Commedia," the "Divine" part was added in the 16th century) through the earliest uses of moveable type, first in Italian, then in every language of the globe including, in 2010, Icelandic, "Gledileikurinn Guddomlegi," translated by Erlingur E. Halldórsson.
      With the digital explosion, Dante's popularity has only grown, with everything from a popular video game that has almost nothing to do with the original, to Columbia University's Digital Dante, an exhaustive, not to mention exhausting, portal to texts, commentaries, history, celebration and analysis. 
     And while I am by no means conversant in all the versions, illustrations, maps, guides, and learning tools produced recently, never mind over the past seven centuries, I would like to introduce one to you today with a sentence that I am confident has never before been used in reference to Dante's canon:
    It's soooooo cute!!!
    Take a look at "The Topography of Dante's Inferno" by Alpaca, an Italian cooperative of 
interactive designers and illustrators. Winner of the Grand Prix and Gold Prize for Didactics at the 2017 International Institute of Information Design Awards (who knew?).
     You can wander the Nine concentric circles of Hell graphically, zooming in here or there, or dragging the image with your mouse. Clicking on the various damned brings you who they are and the relevant passages from Dante's poem. Or search by the types of damned consigned there—panderers and seducers, simoniacs and sorcerers, thieves, adulterers, hypocrites and all the rest of the suffering crew. Or you can search by Canto—there are 33—or by location, the specific ring or sub-circle.
     The site was noticed by my Facebook friend Ann Hilton Fisher, who shared it with me (that's why I can't quit Facebook. Sure, they helped deliver our country over to the Russians. But look at the cool stuff you can find there!)
     A highly useful tool, particularly for students. Yes, they use the tired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, because it's out-of-copyright. But nothing's perfect. The only genuine qualm I have is the aforementioned cuteness. Did not these darling orange and burnt umber winged demons somehow undermine the entire atmosphere of hopeless horror that Dante was going for? It's just not very hellish. 
      I put the question to the folks at Alpaca—nothing yet, but I'll keep you posted. The bottom line to me is, as with all matters cultural, one version does not crowd out another. And a simplified rendition of something does not efface the complex original. Bugs Bunny cartoons where Bugs and Elmer sing grand opera do not undercut the real thing — just the opposite, they introduce potential fans to the genre, drawing in those who might never consider checking out the source material otherwise.
    So why not a cutesy horror? If you recall my reaction to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, I was a little taken aback that they've turned to the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a lesson about bullying. But their prime audience is not me, but 5th graders from Kane County. So maybe that's appropriate.
     Anyway, I saw this, and wanted to share it.