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The Wieners Circle

Atlas Obscura is one of my new favorite websites. With its content focusing largely on geographical phenomena, oddball museums and outsider art, I was pleasantly surprised to see their entry on the infamous Chicago hotdog stand The Wieners Circle, home of both the char-broiled cheddarburger and the gleefully verbally-abusive staff. I recently saw a hilarious clip about Wieners Circle on local news channel CLTV (sadly, I can't find it online) in which they sent in a stooge who asked a bunch of insipid questions ("Do you have anything that's organic?" "Is there a lot of salt in that?") which, given the staff's tendency to demand that customers order quickly and get the hell out, soon had the order-taker exasperated. The questions escalated until this priceless exchange ended the segment:

Customer: Do you take credit cards?
Employee: Oh, sure, I'll take your credit card. And I'll just swipe it in the crack of my ass!

That final word was bleeped out, but it was clearly obvious what it was. Beautiful.

September 30, 2009 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)


Boing Boing is hosting a giveway of Dave Eggers' latest acclaimed work of nonfiction, Zeitoun, which follows the life of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant fighting through the natural devastation and bureaucratic morass wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The contest seeks only an original haiku on the book's subject. With the entry period remaining open until Saturday and there already being 120 entries, I highly doubt I'll be one of the winners, so to avoid losing my entry to the backblog void that is Boing Boing's comments section, here's what I came up with:

Water everywhere,
But nary a drop to drink.
Zeitoun navigates.

September 29, 2009 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Coffee on the road

During our occasional travels, Julie and I have increasingly sought out local, independent coffee houses for our daily espresso fix. Early on, we'd just take the easy coffee route and head for the nearest Starbucks, but as that chain has steadily declined in quality we've begun to look elsewhere. Here's some good ones we've found.

Java Joe's, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Just blocks from the beach, where the ravenous seagulls will be more than happy to rip your scone out your hand if you're not careful. Java Joe's is tiny but comfortable (despite the tight space, we were still able to wheel in Maddie's stroller when she was a baby and park it next to the couch) with plenty of local flavor.

The Green Sage, Asheville, North Carolina
We overnighted in Asheville on our most recent drive to and from Hilton Head, and were quite pleased to find this place. Very organic and crunchy-granola kind of place (even for bohemian Asheville) with very good espresso and great baked goods.

Perkfection, Jeffersonville, Indiana
Espresso here was so-so (though much better than I expected in small-town Indiana) but the food was pretty good. A pleasant stopover during a long car journey.

Mocha, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Our most recent discovery, and definitely one of our favorites. Great espresso, fine baked goods, plenty of comfy chairs, a nice urban feel and big street windows for people-watching. (Regarding the latter: most of the people in the Westown neighborhood on weekend mornings seem to be female joggers, for some reason. Not sure where the guys were, other than maybe sleeping off the previous night's bender.) 

Drink Coffee, Sister Bay, Wisconsin
When we visited this shop in 2001, it was called DC Coffee and was under different ownership, so I can't really vouch for its present incarnation, but back then the espresso was very good and the cherry scones (cherries being the leading fruit crop in Door County) were wonderful.

Kick Coffee, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Again, another shop which appears to be under different ownership than when we visited in 2001, so I can't totally vouch for it, but it was good then and has a great location in downtown Sturgeon Bay, doorway to the Door County peninsula.

Cafe Julia, South Haven, Michigan
They brew coffee roasted by Intelligentsia. And have a porch with rocking chairs. Enough said.

September 29, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Feelies

At the Chicago Reader, Peter Margasak reflects on the Feelies, and in particular the reissue of their first two albums, Crazy Rythyms and The Good Earth. The latter is one of my favorite albums in my collection, and the former has been out of print for ages but is now ripe for my acquisition. I concur in particular with his praise for "Raised Eyebrows", which I taped from a public library copy of Crazy Rythyms during my mostly-broke grad school days, and still love all these years later.

September 29, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

William Walsh, Questionstruck

William Walsh's Questionstruck is a strange book. The subtitle says it all: A Collection of Question-Based Texts Derived from the Books of Calvin Trillin. Indeed, Walsh has methodically extracted all of the interrogatives from Trillin's first 25 books. Sometimes, when Trillin's questions were grouped closely together, the passages read easily, but when the questions were more spread it was much harder to comprehend. But even in the latter case it was intriguing to read. More than anything else, this reads like an extended advertisement for Trillin's entire career, which as a big fan of the writer I have no problem with. Indeed, Walsh's book has whetted my appetite to read even more Trillin, particularly Runestruck (which awaits on my shelf), Floater (an early novel which I've learned is available in my local library system) and Remembering Denny.

September 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dover Book Shop, 1945



Photographs of Dover Book Shop, 102nd and Broadway in Manhattan, taken by Sam Gottscho in 1945. Love that stylish Midcentury Modern design.

(Via Shorpy, which has full-sized versions of these images here and here.)

September 23, 2009 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...gulping down wheat berries and bean sprouts?"

William Walsh's Questionstruck consists entirely of interrogatives extracted from Calvin Trillin's first twenty-five books. Here's a particularly fine group of Trillin's questions (from 1978's Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater) on two of his favorite subjects, cuisine and travel:

But was I really ready for health food? Aside from the fact that it has always seemed bad for my health, what would people say? What would Fats Goldberg, the pizza baron, someone who believes that green vegetables should be consumed only by small furry animals, say if I answered his inevitable questions about eating in England by telling him I hung around health-food shops, gulping down wheat berries and bean sprouts? Could I really discuss whole-grain bread with chili heads and knish freaks? Could we have become a connoisseur of Stuff-Stuff with Heavy? Who would have thought it of a man who travels with Arthur Bryant's barbecue sauce? Could you please pass the sour cream?

September 23, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Listening: "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)"

Elliott Smith: Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)

Lovely cover of George Harrison's great song by the equally great Elliott Smith, from a 2001 San Francisco show. Harrison's lyrics are particularly moving as sung by Smith, who despite his artistic success lived a deeply troubled life. I suspect that Smith spent most of his years looking for love and peace on Earth, yet never really found either.

(Via Largehearted Boy.)

September 20, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

The not-so-ancient lost city of Goverthing

Fascinating, bizarre, baffling: the archaeological excavation of a small town on Governors Island, New York, which disappeared...in 1954.

September 20, 2009 in History | Permalink | Comments (1)

The horror! The horror!

I've never read anything by Dan Brown, and after cringing my way through this I now have absolutely no need to ever do so: Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences. My gawd, that's some truly horrible writing.

September 18, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness

Just finished reading Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. Great subject matter - a journalistic study of three underground economies: marijuana, pornography and illegal immigrant labor - but the book doesn't really come across as a coherent whole, just three separate subjects unified by little more than a short and less-than-synthesizing concluding section. Each section was originally published as articles in The Atlantic, and the book indeed feels like it was just cobbled together from those articles, with the conclusion tacked on at the end. Good writing, though, and an interesting read for anyone intrigued by how illegal economies can flourish in America despite the offical disapproval of society.

September 18, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cold-blooded inhumanity is a pre-existing condition, too...

At least for the titans of the health insurance industry. Three more examples of the venality of health insurers...

+ Being the victim of domestic abuse is a pre-existing condition, and thus is used as the basis for denying medical coverage. (Most of the top health insurers)
+ "Having a child is a matter of choice," and thus elective, and thus maternity care is subject to denial of coverage. (Anthem Blue Cross)
+ Delivering a child by Caesarean section increases the likelihood that a Caesarean will be needed for future births, and thus the first Caesarean creates a pre-existing condition which is the basis for denying coverage of future Caesareans. (Golden Rule Insurance)

But remember, things would be so much worse if we had government bureaucrats deciding what health care you deserve instead of profit-motivated private companies. PASS MEANINGFUL HEALTH CARE REFORM LEGISLATION, NOW.

September 17, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others."
- Virginia Woolf

September 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rejecting the "cult of the market"

French President Nicholas Sarkozy is onto something (no, not "on something") here.

"A great revolution is waiting for us. For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos," argues the French leader. "The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so."

Sarkozy's "revolution" would still use measures of economic growth and contraction in the analysis of a nation's success. But the definition would be expanded beyond traditional gross domestic product (GDP) models to include measures of well-being and what Sarkozy describes as "the politics of civilization." These include environmental sustainability, the quality of public services and the amount of time citizens of a country have to meet family responsibilities -- which the French leader values as "personal services provided within a family circle."
I've been thinking along these lines quite a bit during the past few months, and have been contemplating what I'm tentatively calling "social profit." The general idea is that the standard measure of a company's profitability - revenues minus expenses - is skewed almost entirely toward the interests of shareholders and executives, and ignores the impact of a company's actions on its workers, its suppliers and customers, its community and society as a whole.

Under standard accounting, if a corporation fires a thousand workers and realizes payroll and other cost savings which are greater than the lost revenue which those workers generated, then the corporation's accounting profit improves. Shareholders and executives benefit (from the resulting improvement in the corporation's stock price) while workers and their families suffer. If a corporation determines that belching mercury and other toxic matter from its smokestacks into the atmosphere can be done at a lower cost (from resulting legal actions and regulatory penalties) than responsibly installing state-of-the-art pollution control equipment, then its accounting profit improves, again benefiting shareholders and executives while harming everyone who lives nearby with the nasty enviromental fallout. If a corporation forces its suppliers into unreasonable cost concessions, it lowers its own input costs but only by lowering the revenue of the suppliers, which may result in the suppliers freezing or reducing wages to its workers, or even instituting layoffs. Again, the corporation's shareholders executives gain, while the suppliers and their workers lose. Or, as Sarkozy might note, if a corporation demands that its employees work such unreasonably long hours that their family lives are disrupted or even damaged, the corporation gains through greater output and efficiency while families are harmed.

Simply put, accounting profit is too narrowly focused. It evaluates a corporation as if it exists in a vacuum, as if its sole responsibility is to enrich its shareholders and executives while all other stakeholders - workers, suppliers, customers, the community - are of little or no consequence. Social profit, by contrast, would measure a corporation's actions on all of its stakeholders. If a company generates high accounting profits, that's perfectly fine, but only if it does so while not damaging the rest of society in the process. Though my concept of social profit applies specifically to corporations, it could easily be extended to national economies, where Sarkozy rightly suggests GDP is as unreasonably narrowly focused as an economic benchmark as accounting profit is for corporations.

I like where Sarkozy is going with this, and hope he finds a receptive audience at the G-20 summit.

September 15, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fear and Booking in Milwaukee


Julie recaps our weekend trip to Milwaukee, my elaborations on which will be limited to the literary. First off, when she calls Downtown Books "ridiculously wonderful" she is not exaggerating at all. This is, hands-down, one of the very best used bookstores I've ever visited - two-plus stories with a broad range of seemingly every possible subject matter, low prices and a very helpful staff. Naturally I was drawn to the fiction (which takes up much of the first floor), and just thirty minutes of wallowing light-headed amidst the stacks caused my self-imposed ban on buying any more books this year to evaporate - POOF - into the atmosphere. I bought two books on Friday and two more on our return visit on Saturday:

+ Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall: I've expressed my deep admiration for Schulberg's writing here repeatedly, and I've had my eye out for this one, his highly-regarded boxing novel. Though normally I refrain from buying used books by living writers that I greatly admire (buying a new copy instead means well-deserved money in their pockets), Schulberg's recent passing left me with no qualms over picking this up.

+ John McGahern, Amongst Women: I enjoyed McGahern's debut, The Barracks, when I read it last year, and have looked forward to reading his later, more mature works, of which Amongst Women is often considered to be his best. I had hoped to find this on clearance at Brent Books (formerly across the street from my office) when that store was liquidating, but no luck, so I was very glad to find it here.

+ Peter George, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb: George was one of the screenwriters (with Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern) of the great and hilarious antiwar film, and until now I hadn't even been aware of a fiction adaptation of the story. I've had good experiences reading novel versions of some of my favorite films (including On The Waterfront and The Manchurian Candidate), so I thought this one was worth a try - especially for only $1.99. This book wasn't even on the shelf yet, but when I saw it on a cart waiting to be shelved I plucked it off right away.

+ Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square: I've read multiple praisings of this book (mainly in the Guardian, I think) which has been characterized as one of the greatest novels about drinking and drunkenness ever written. Sedate family man that I've become, I've always had a feeling that I'd love this book in a voyeuristic way, but until now I haven't been able to find it in stores or even in my library system. So when I stumbled it across it while looking for some of the few Knut Hamsun titles I don't own, I knew Hamilton's book had to be mine.

So I picked up those four, plus Julie bought Kent Haruf's Where You Once Belonged and Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden (both of which I know I'll read eventually) for both of us, plus several more for herself, as did Maddie. Downtown Books is a truly great store - in fact, I would gladly drive to Milwaukee for the sole purpose of visiting there again. Once I hack away a little more of the book logjam around myself, that is.

Okay, so the two visits to Downtown Books account for the "booking" in this blog post's title. The "fear" refers to our visit to another used store, Renaissance Book Shop. There, in a huge, musty, dimly-lit building that could easily be mistaken for a condemned property, books were jammed into every conceivable location - piled on the floor, stacked on top of display cabinets whose contents could only be guessed at, and overhung from the tops of shelves like avalanche-ready boulders on a cliff wall. Had the hermetic Collyer brothers decided to crawl out of their rat's nest and try their hand at bookselling, this is exactly what their store would have looked like. That's me far in the background of the photo above, in the periodicals section of the basement, which was filled with tables and cabinets of old magazines and trade journals, most of which appeared to have been there for years, completely untouched. After our first-floor experience, I wouldn't have even dared venturing to the basement, except that Maddie had to go to the bathroom and the store's only facilities were down there. (She's a brave child - there's no way I would have used that bathroom, not even standing up.) It looks like the owners of the store have been accumulating books for decades without any particular concern whether or not the books ever make it out again, which I find admirable in an odd sort of way. We were all a bit overwhelmed and freaked out by the experience, so much so that, despite being obsessive book buyers, when we returned to the fresh air and sunlight of Plankinton Avenue we had no new purchases in hand. And were uncharacteristically okay with that.

September 14, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)


"To me, writing is entirely mysterious. If I didn't believe it was a mystery, the whole thing wouldn't be worthwhile. I don't know not just how something is going to end, but what the next couple of lines are going to be."
- William Trevor

September 8, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Absolute Beginners"

If you're feeling a bit sluggish today, this video should get you going. I'm not sure what the Jam is running from here, unless it's a sly nod to A Hard Day's Night and the screaming hordes that pursued the Beatles. Though a nod like that would have made more sense if the band was running through American streets with nobody pursuing them - they barely made a dent in the U.S. - as opposed to England, where this clearly was filmed and where the band was huge during their heyday. It will forever remain a mystery to me why they never made it big here. It certainly wasn't the fault of their music, which remains as wonderful as ever, 25+ years later.

September 6, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

No to "triggers"

The latest proposal in the healthcare reform debate is to defer the public option for now, with the caveat that it could be implemented, or "triggered", several years from now if private insurers do nothing to reduce health insurance costs. This makes no sense for several reasons. First, the insurance industry has done absolutely nothing up until now to control costs, so why should we believe that they'll suddenly wise up and do so, just because there's the possibility of a public option being instituted sometime in the future? (And make no mistake, it will no more than a possibility - no matter how concrete Congress makes the "trigger" legislation, it's inevitable that enough wiggle room will be built in to enable the public option to be deferred again several years from now, or even abandoned completely.) Instead, the industry will likely use the trigger as a grace period to squeeze several hundred billion dollars more out of the American public.

Second, if the public option will be legitimate government policy in three years, why isn't it legitimate policy right now? Why wait?

The insurance industry has had it too good for far too long - raising premiums to policyholders while continuing to delay or deny coverage - and a public option trigger will do nothing more than to extend the insurers' good times for several more years, and won't fix our broken healthcare system. We're paying more for healthcare than every other country in the world, and yet the quality of that healthcare lags most of the developed world, and the private insurance industry's position as profit-grabbing middleman is the primary cause. We can do better, and must do better.

I know the Obama Administration is under a lot of pressure to pass any sort of healthcare reform so it can claim political victory. But 65 million voters didn't put Obama into office so he could claim political victories. Instead they voted for change, for a better way of life for all Americans. Weak healthcare reform is the wrong kind of change, and might be even worse than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo. Pass a strong public option right now.

September 6, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

"A Bar on North Avenue"

Great piece at Granta by Roger Ebert about O'Rourke's, his old hangout near Old Town. It's pretty safe to say that the boisterous era of journalism that he so lovingly describes will never be seen again. I've never read Granta, but I'll definitely pick up the next issue, which will be entirely devoted to Chicago and is already garnering plenty of local praise. Really looking forward to it.

September 4, 2009 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bands of Brothers

The latest rift between Oasis' forever-sparring Gallagher brothers (I'm giving them about three weeks before they're back together) got me thinking...

A short and by no means comprehensive list of rock bands with brothers in them
Oasis (Liam and Noel Gallagher)
The Kinks (Ray and Dave Davies)
The Replacements (Tommy and Bob Stinson)
The Connells (Mike and David Connell)
Crowded House (Tim and Neil Finn)
The Allman Brothers (Greg and Duane Allman)
Scruffy the Cat (MacPaul and Burns Stanfield)
Dire Straits (Mark and David Knopfler)
Versus (Ed and Richard Balyut)
Meat Puppets (Curt and Cris Kirkwood)

Feel free to add your own in the comments!

September 3, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (6)

T.S. Eliot and the day job

Interesting tidbit on T.S. Eliot: the Bloomsbury folks once offered to set up an endowment that would pay for Eliot's living expenses, thus allowing him to quit his bank job and devote his full attention and energy to his writing. Eliot declined.
"This idea that Eliot should be freed from the drudgery of work misses the point that he was actually very interested in the minutiae of every day life - he was a commentator on the quotidian, and really thrived on the routine of office life at Lloyd's and then later at Faber."
Bold move, one which I'm not entirely sure I could make myself. Not that anyone is offering me anything like that, of course - in this economy, I'm just blessed that my employer is still offering me a paycheck - but such an offer would sorely tempt me to quit my own banking job. But while I generally detest my job (which is one reason I'm blogging right now, at 1:09 in the afternoon, smack dab in the middle of the workday), I also recognize the great value to fiction writers of being immersed in the working world and staying connected with everyday life, instead of holing up in a garret to sweat over one's magnum opus or lounging in the echo chamber of cafe society.

September 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)