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Caught in the Rain

I like being prepared at all times, but this morning I failed. I knew rain was in the forecast, but thought nothing of it. It was raining ever so slightly, barely a mist, when my train left Joliet. I lost myself in a book, but when I finally looked out the window as the train approached the South Loop, I could see it was raining much harder. As the train pulled into the LaSalle Street Station (not my regular station, as I missed my earlier train, thus giving me a considerably longer and more exposed walk) and I packed my book away, I reached into the side of my bag where I keep my umbrella. Nothing there. I instantly realized it was sitting back home, in a corner of the garage where I had left it to dry after the last time it rained.

Chicago is only a fair place to walk in the rain without an umbrella, probably because it rains here so rarely. Many of the newer buildings do have open-air covered walkways which offer precipatory protection, but the older buildings come right to the edge of the sidewalk with solid walls of masonry. I decided it wasn't coming down too badly, and I could make a run for it. An unwise decision, as it turns out.

I cut through a building which has an indoor corridor running all the way from Van Buren to Jackson, at the end of which was a CVS drugstore. I stopped in, intending to buy a cheap umbrella. But the umbrella stand was conspicuously free of price tags, which makes me wonder if their umbrellas have flexible pricing based on the weather. Yesterday, when it was sunny and 95 degrees, I'll bet they were going for eight bucks a pop. The lack of price tags felt a bit unseemly, and I decided to forego my purchase. I had no appetite for discovering that today, in a steadily increasing downpour, the going price had leaped to, say, twenty bucks.

I exited CVS and cut across the street to the Sears Tower parking garage, where I could walk under cover all the way from Wells to Franklin. But when I reached the other side, I was stuck. On the other side of Franklin was the Sears Tower, with a concrete retaining wall looming next to the sidewalk for an entire block, and across the street were older buildings with no overhang whatsoever. It was really pouring now, but I had no choice. When the walk light changed, I bolted from the garage and ran hellbent up the sidewalk next to the retaining wall, getting drenched within seconds. I cut across Adams, gaining the shelter of a Northern Trust branch office. It was then I decided it was futile to keep wiping off my glasses, and finally looking down, I saw that the dregs of my coffee mug had splattered my jeans with dark brown spots. What a lovely fashion statement.

So I had a sheltered reprieve, but again I was stuck. To the north on Wacker was a construction zone, and to stay on Adams meant a long sprint across Wacker's broad expanse, and then another block to cross the river. I decided on the latter, and eventually made it to South Riverside Plaza, where the newer buildings mercifully have broad overhangs which run the entire length of the block. I damply walked up to Monroe, waiting at the edge of the overhang for the walk light before sprinting to the other side, gaining cover from an identical building. The process would repeat itself at Madison, just across the street from my office. While waiting under cover for the walk light, an enterprising young guy was offering some sort of umbrella shuttle to the taxicab stands on Canal Street.

The walk light changed, and I made my final sprint across Madison. I avoided a shortcut through the Osco on the corner, figuring I couldn't get much wetter than I already was. I pushed my way through the revolving doors and headed towards the elevator, looking like a sodden stray dog.

It's 11 A.M., and I'm still quite damp, and probably will be all day. I've learned my lesson. I hope.

June 26, 2003 in Memoir | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bike Messengering

Having now worked downtown for almost a year, I've become fascinated by bike messengers. While they undoubtedly think of themselves as misfits, iconoclasts and the ultimate outsiders, they are utterly dependent on the mainstream corporate world for their livelihood. A fascinating contradiction. Which is why I've just begun reading The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley, a formerly-struggling artist who became a bike messenger to survive. Should be a very interesting read.

After reading just fifteen pages, I've already become more aware of the minefields that messengers face during their daily journeys. Particularly the foolish Saab driver who was stopped in the crosswalk at Madison and Clinton, too obnoxious to approach the intersection cautiously but too timid to run the red light. (Perhaps my general opinion of male BMW drivers can be expanded to other makes.) I regret to add that he's a fellow Illinois alumnus, or at least that's what his vanity license plate tells me. Actually, I'd prefer to think that it's his wife's car, and she married him out of pity.

June 25, 2003 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Prince

Prince Phillip lorded over his few square feet of sidewalk, being mildly threatening to others like him but charmingly obsequious to those whom he couldn't help but think of as his betters.

"Move along, this is my spot," he'd growl. "Go down to the next corner if you want, but you can't stay here. And don't call me Phil--it's Prince Phillip."

"Good moooorning, sir," he'd then gush. "Beautiful day, wonderful to be alive. That's a fiiiine suit...you must be a big-time executive. Now, sir, can you find it in your heart to give a brother a little help? No? Why, thank you anyway, sir, and God bless you."

June 20, 2003 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vicious Circle

Whether in the West Bank, Northern Ireland or the Balkans, the ceaseless vicious circle of violent revenge simply must stop. The fact that somebody's ancestor insulted somebody else's ancestor several generations ago has absolutely no relevance to today's conflict. An ethnic group does not earn the right to kill just because they were the most recent victims, and thus it's their turn.

No matter how they have been victimized, the most recently aggrieved ethnic group must have the courage, maturity and humanity to say, "Although you have just wronged me, and I have the traditional right of revenge, I will refrain. The violence ends right here, right now."

But the most primal human response is to simply strike back, which is why the violence never really ends.

June 19, 2003 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


Two suburban girls, both bleached-blonde and with all the trappings of college-age chic, sit in the front window of a downtown coffeehouse, clearly not enjoying their urban experience. They stare blankly out into the street, their faces laconically cast in a look of bored disinterest. Watching people bustle past, people with direction and purpose, even if the direction is back to the suburbs the girls had fled in boredom, and the purpose regaining the domesticity which the girls had escaped.

The girls had thought, or just hoped, that so much awaited them in the city. But downtown's novelty soon wore thin, vanishing like the morning fog under the sun's sharp rays. Leaving them resigned to sipping overpriced coffee, as bored as they had been in their subdivision, but with more people to look at. But never connecting.

June 18, 2003 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Nation

I just finished reading Into the Buzzsaw, and I'm struck not so much by its overall theme of censorship, but the underlying conservatism of the media and the journalism profession. Media outlets, through consolidation and the pursuit of profit, have grown extremely cautious and wary of upsetting the powers-that-be in government and business. Journalists have largely become stenographers, dutifully passing along corporate press releases and pronouncements of government officials, never asking the difficult questions or challenging the party line.

Which makes it even more remarkable that The Nation has been able to survive for nearly 140 years as a prominent voice of establishment-challenging dissent. Not tied to any corporate interests and supported solely by donors and subscribers, it has earned its hard-fought position as one of America's great independent voices. But considering that most well-heeled potential donors are conservative and thus diametrically opposed to The Nation's views, just how has it managed to survive for so long? Perserverance, resourcefulness and single-minded devotion to its cause all play a part, but the biggest reason is probably its refusal to be beholden to any of its financial backers.

I'm thinking specifically of Fox News Channel, which ran prominent back-cover ads in two recent issues, even though its right-wing, reactionary politics are anathema to anyone associated with The Nation, and its influence being a direct threat to everything the magazine stands for. But while The Nation presumably needed the money, and might have been tempted to curry Fox's continued favor, the magazine took uninhibited delight at bashing Fox, even as the advertiser's bold logo and disingenuous motto ("Fair and Balanced") blared from the back cover. It was a delicious bit of subversion on The Nation's part, one which was unlikely to gain Fox's future patronage, but emblematic of the magazine's devotion to its beliefs.

The Nation is our country's unrelenting conscience.

June 14, 2003 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gregory Peck and David Brinkley

During the past two days, America lost two of its greats, Gregory Peck and David Brinkley. Men of the highest character, honesty and integrity. Brinkley was at the forefront of a lost era of journalism, when television news meant more than ratings, advertising dollars and not upsetting the status quo. Brinkley brought a calm, evenhanded, almost fatherly presence to the nightly news, standing as a reliable source of information and a bastion of honest reporting. Today's anchors are, by comparison, mere entertainers.

Peck's heyday was mostly before my time, so I'm not familiar with most of his career. But one needs only to witness his monumental role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to become aware of his greatness. As powerful as the original novel was, Peck's performance took the story to a completely different level. His steely-eyed, compassionate determination in fighting for a righteous but hopeless cause, while also being a loving father and impeccable role model to his two young children, is among the pinnacles of American filmmaking. The scene near the end of the film, when Atticus quietly exits the nearly-empty courtroom and the black gentleman in the balcony says to Finch's daughter, "Stand up, Miss Scout, stand up. Your father's passing" never fails to give me shivers.

Farewell, gentlemen. You will be sorely missed.

June 13, 2003 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


Happy Anniversary, Booga J! Four wonderful years, and counting!

June 12, 2003 in Memoir | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brazil and AIDS

Brazil has been quite effective at fighting AIDS. Its program, now in its twentieth year, has resulted in only 1% of its population being infected with HIV, which contrasts dramatically with South Africa, where 20% of the population has the virus. According to an article by Patrice M. Jones in the Chicago Tribune:

"A major reason for Brazil's far lower infection rate is its prevention program, which promotes frank talk about safe sex. On the treatment side, anti-retroviral drugs are provided free to anyone who cannot afford them. Now about 125,000 patients are receiving the AIDS cocktail of drugs at a cost of about $2,000 per patient a year. That compares with $10,000 to $15,000 a year in developed nations, including the United States. Brazil has been able to provide free treatment at a low cost because in 1997 it started a program to manufacture its own generic AIDS medicine."

Interesting. A country whose primary public-health focus is serving its citizens, and not lining the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry. So which country, Brazil or the United States, is supposedly the less civilized one?

June 10, 2003 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Understandable Fears

Over the weekend, the citizens of Poland voted whether or not their country would join the European Union. There has been considerable opposition, due variously to concerns about the EU's lack of religious emphasis and low initial subsidies to Polish farmers. But most interesting was an issue voiced by government official Krzysztof Zagorski, of the Public Opinion Research Center in Warsaw:

"The really big concern is that foreign capital will buy out Poland--Poland's industry, Poland's banks and, primarily, Poland's land," Zagorski said. "For historical reasons, there is fear of the Germans coming back and buying up the land."

A legitimate concern, but at least Poland would be getting paid for this conquest. During previous repeat visits over the last thousand years, the Germans and Russians could never seem to remember to bring their checkbooks.

June 9, 2003 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Searching for Real

I apologize for my lack of new material. I've been taking quite a bit of time off from work lately, and my best two-paragraph output seems to come to me while walking from the train station to my office. On top of that, most of my creative energies at the moment are being channelled into a short story I'm working on for submission to The Boston Review for an upcoming fiction contest. Here's another entry from the archives. Incidentally, though I was raised in the suburbs, I'm actually a fourth-generation Chicagoan, having lived in the city for over six years before moving away in 2000.

Searching for Real
I want to connect with the past, but present won't let me--at least, not here. I read about Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, czars of the notorious First Ward, and I want so much to make the smallest and slightest of connections with their world. I know that the old vice district is long gone, but I just want to see, if nothing else, the buildings that Bathhouse and the Hink knew.

I know that the old Irish neighborhood of Connolly's Patch and the "old Levee", having been in or near what is now the Loop, have long since been obliterated. More than likely, the plots on which those neighborhoods stood have already seen two or three waves of buildings come and go. Same for Hairtrigger Block and Gambler's Alley, which have long since made way for the progress of office towers.

But somehow I held out hope for the "new Levee," at 22nd and Dearborn. I thought maybe that neighborhood had withstood the ravages of progress, and I would be able to glimpse what was once the Everleigh Club or Freiberg's dance hall. Maybe the neighborhood never got popular enough to be developed, and the ancient buildings would remain.

But I drove down there on a brief detour, only to discover 1960's-modern concrete highrises springing up from where the new Levee once stood. I probably should have expected this, having seen the once-great Coliseum--former home to the legendary First Ward Ball--reduced to a few piles of rubble years before.

I was saddened by all of this. It seems the Chicago our city fathers want us to see is limited to the glorious modern highrises of downtown. The fathers don't ever want to acknowledge that Chicago used to be a disreputable, yet oh-so-real, town. They want to present us with the gleaming towers, and the starched shirts and the silk ties, and the ridiculously whimsical Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier.

You have to go out to the neighborhoods to catch even a fleeting glimpse of Chicago as it really was, warts and all. Where people know it's possible to rejuvenate a neighborhood without demolishing and building back up. Where eccentricities live and flourish, where the shirts are rumpled and the garbage not always picked up. Where life is real.


June 7, 2003 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)