Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Fiscal Cliff

     I woke up in the middle of the night, that time when we are sitting in the dark with no companions except our own doubts and fears. That time when Jerry Mcquire had his dismal self-realization - his memo moment. My distress came from an e-mail I had received earlier in the evening about yet another assault by the Illinois General Assembly upon my humble teacher's pension by governor Bruce. Now, in the middle of the night, fear became magnifidied and doubt doubled down. The state of Illinois was broke. It was pretty much common knowledge. They had been underfunding their portion of the education fund for a decade. They kept kicking the can down the road. During the Blago years, there was effectively no government. Illinois was standing on the edge of a financial cliff long before the term came in vogue.
       On the first day of each month, I sit in front of the computer and wait for my monthly pension stipend to come from the state. Now at 2:00 in the morning, a thought hit me. What if it never came. I mean, ever again. What happens when a state goes totally bankrupt? Does the Federal Government bail them out? The Feds bailed out auto companies, banks and insurance companies because they were too big to fail. What about the state of Illinois? It not like we're Rhode Island.
     I thought of the General Assembly -all 59 senators and 177 representatives -trying to agree on something. Had it ever been done? (that is, besides them deciding to fully fund their pension system).I guess I will just continue to monitor Detroit, the first major city in the United States to be flat out broke.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chicago 130 years ago

     The Chicago World's Fair, properly know as the Colombian Exposition, ran from May through October in 1893. The last day of the Fair was suppose to be the biggest - the grand finale. The hope was that the closing ceremony would eclipse "Chicago Day" held earlier on October 9th. For their special day, flamboyant Mayor Carter H. Harrison asked that stores be closed and every Chicagoan show their support by attending. The hope was to surpass the single day attendance record set by the 1889 World's Fair in Paris of 374,000. Chicago did not disappoint - by the end of the day there were 751,000 people in the 630 acre site now known as Jackson Park. It was the single largest gathering of people in the history of the world (that were not assembled to kill each other in battle, that is). At the end of "Chicago Day", there were 5,000 rockets send into the night sky over Lake Michigan.
     The closing ceremony was even more ambitious. Fair activities organizer Frank Millet had an amazing gala planned. There was to be a landing by Columbus on Lake Michigan's shore with full size replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. There was to be speeches, music and, of course, more fireworks. Anyone who has attended a Fourth of July at Navy Pier can attest - Chicagoans love their fireworks.
     "Chicago Day" had put the financially strapped Fair in the black. A record attendance at the  closing ceremony would provide a profit so large that Chicago could thumb it's nose at New York. The Big Apple had lost the bid to host the Fair and was predicting disaster for the Chicago site ever since. New York editor Charles Dana nicknamed Chicago the "Windy City" not for it's weather but its brag and bluster.
     Unfortunately, fate intervened and this spectacular closing finale never came to pass. On October 28th, Mayor Harrison hosted "Cities Day" with 5,000 mayors and city councilmen in attendance. It was his day to shine and the 68 year old politician was livelier than ever. When he returned home that evening, he opened the door to a strange young man who wanted to see him about a city job that he felt he deserved. Patrick Prendergast shot the Mayor through the heart at close range and the magic suddenly ended. There was no way Chicago could have a festive closing ceremony on the same day that it buried its popular mayor. On October 31, with only a few people in attendance, the lights unceremoniously went out on the first illuminated fair in history.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Modest Proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

In "The Cassidy Posse", the culprit behind the conspiracy against my detective Mike McGhan was a fictional candidate for Governor of Illinois. A few readers were probably wondering where I came up with that idea. These would be readers from other time zones or alternate realities that were not aware of Illinois political history. Thus far their have been four Illinois governors that have been elected only to later spend time in prison:
      1. Otto Kerner (1961-68) was convicted on 17 counts of bribery and conspiracy.
      2. Dan Walker (1973-77) was convicted in Federal court for his involvement in the S&L scandal.
      3. George Ryan (1999-03) charged for corruption during his tenure as Secretary of State.
      4. Rod Blagojevich (2003-2009) for his "Pay to Play" schemes and most notable trying to sell the
           open Senate seat of Barack Obama. (remember"this is bleeping golden")
      To many Illinoisans (?), this litany of scoundrels is well know so in an effort to expand your knowledge, I will tell you about the ones that got away. Governor Len Small, Republican, (1921-29) was acquitted of corruption charges. Soon after, eight of the jurors got government jobs. He was defended by former Governor Joe Fifer who claimed in court that the governor had the "Devine Rights" of Kings. Then there was Governor Stratton, Republican, (1953-61) that was acquitted of tax evasions charges.
     In his article about disgraced governors, AP writer Chris Wills said "Unfortunately, I think most Illinoisans have just thrown up their hands and given up. But that's not the answer." All right, here I am in agreement. Don't give up Illinoisans, I have a plan. There are currently 593,931 people in Illinois that are unemployed. My idea would be to have a lottery among these Illinoisans without jobs to put one of them in the state mansion in Springfield. Since many of these 593,932 unemployed Illinoisans are homeless, I'm sure you can see the merit of my proposal already. With Illinois voters' track record for electing governors, how could any of these people do a poorer job? Of course, there would have to be standards. All applicants would have to have a background check to make sure they were not a criminal before taking office. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

63rd and Wallace

     I picked my brother up from Midway Airport on the pleasant, sunny afternoon of June 22nd. I was late because the city had decided to repave Cicero Avenue and traffic was backed up for a mile. When we left the airport, we started looking for an alternative route.  Driving east towards the lake, my brother spotted a Portillo's, a Chicago landmark, and we had stop in for a sausage. As we examined the street map spread on the table before us, my brother had a revelation. 
      "Isn't the H. H. Holmes murder castle that you're writing about in your sequel close to here?"
      "Yeah, I guess. It's down 63rd street towards the lake. It was on the corner of 63rd and Wallace."
       "We'll never be closer than this," he said. "Let's go take a look at where the hotel was. You can't have any credibility writing this book if you don't visit the original site."
     "That's not a good neighborhood," I warned.
     He gave me a "so what" look and I knew I could not back down from a brother challenge.
So warily clutching the wheel of my minivan, we are off down 63rd Street.
     "Do you have a gun?" I asked.
     "No, I just got off a plane."
     "Oh, yeah, right." I thought it was a fair question since he is a police officer.
     We traveled a few more mile talking about the Cubs chances this year, all the time feeling nervous and terrible out of place.
     " That was it!" he yells as we passed under an elevated train track.
     " That was what?"
     "Wallace. It ran right next to the tracks. You've got to turn around." He surveyed the neighborhood with a practiced eye. "Just do it quick." he added.
     Like he thought he needed to tell me that. Then I got a better idea.
     "I'll just turn down this alley. It should come out on Wallace. We won't even have to stop."
      Well, that was true in a way. We didn't have to stop until we got to the end of the alley where it ran into the structure of the elevated train. If you don't feel safe driving through the streets of Englewood, just cruise down the alleys.
     Through my research I knew that a Post Office now occupied the spot where the infamous "World's Fair Hotel" had been located. The building appeared on our left and I realized it had sat on the southeast corner. The long side of the 125 by 50 foot building was actually on Wallace where the restaurant and jewelry store had their entrance. The Robinson Pharmacy was on the corner with an entrance off 63rd. I thougth of the estimated 200 people who died horrible deaths on that unholy piece of property and wondered if the local residents had seen any ghosts.
     "Once the site of lost souls, now the site of lost mail," quipped my brother.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Return of PBR

       I was in a bar in Florida called "The Blur" that I should really have been throw out of for being "over-aged." What caught my attention was a calendar of upcoming events that I was able to read thanks to illumination by pulsating strobe lights. Among the posters of upcoming bands (all featured  tattoed, neon-colored hair rockers) was a mention that thursday night was to be "PBR Night."
My buddy from college and I thought we might be right at home here on a thursday night. Pabst Blue Ribbon was a staple of our diet in college. My son, who was with us, suggested that the beer's followers may have changed a bit since the sixties.
     The origin of PBR goes back to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 when the brew supposedly won the blue ribbon for being voted "America's Best" by judges at that time. Before the Fair it was known as Pabst Select. With its new fame, it was proudly renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and sold well in the new century reaching its peak in 1977 when it sold 18 million barrels. Its popularity declined in the 80's and 90's as microbrews and import-sipping beer snobs influenced the market. By 2001, the PBR brand was selling less than a million barrels a year.
     The brand might have been had headed for extinction had it not been for the perversity of American youth. PBR was featured on "South Park" as the prime catalyst for domestic violence among the show's white trash fan base. With favorable publicity like this, PBR bagan making comeback. Now it has counter-culture credentials among hip urban youth and is doing quite well.  Go figure.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Crazies among us

      I am writing the sequel to "The Cassidy Posse" which is set in Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair. Detectives McGhan and Bockleman are overwhelmed with the sheer number of cases that arise when 26 million visitors come to town. What is really disturbing to them is the number of single, young women that are vanishing. Relatives themselves or hired investigators are constantly asking about them.
      Anyone familiar with the city's history during this time knows that one man accounted for a large portion of these. He was infamous Herman Mudgett, alias Dr.H.H. Holmes, the nation's first and possibly most prolific mass murderer. He was brought to light recently in Erik Larson's bestseller "Devil in the White City." Dr.Holmes graduated from the University of Michigan medical school where the specialty was  the controversial practice of dissection. Medical schools were clamoring for cadavers and skeletons - no questions asked. Holmes and his associates were only too willing to supply them. There is no certain figure of how many victims fell to Holmes in his period in Chicago from 1896 until 1894. He confessed to 27 but estimates go as high as 200.
     While doing research on the good Doctor, I found that I had a mistaken notion of what a psychopath was. I was guilty of the common assumption that all psychopaths are killers of the Norman Bates (Psycho) variety. I was surprised to learn that most psychopaths are not killers but morally defective individuals. They can be, as Dr. Holmes was, very charming and persuasive, understanding the emotions of others while actually feeling none themselves. They have no conscience and self-gratification is the sole reason for their existence (hello, Bernie Madoff).
      Another more recent example from the Chicagoland area could be Drew Peterson. In the Lifetime movie "Untouchable" he was portrayed as being charming but manipulative, seeking out women who he sensed were insecure. He would begin his relationships by showering young women with attention always explaining that his current wife was a bitch. Psychopaths are adept at portraying themselves as the victim.
     The most starling thing to me that came out of my research is that psychopaths just seem to be born that way. ( I'm thinking back to"The Bad Seed" starring Patty McCormick). What is ironic is that Mickey and Mallory in "Natural Born Killers" would be technically classified as sociopaths since their behaviors stemmed from their horrible childhoods. While psychopaths plan their murders meticulously, sociopaths carry out unplanned and extremely violent murders. They are usually unorganised and leave a trail of clues.
     Another revelation was that using Dr. Richard Hare's "Psychopathy Checklist",one study concluded that one to two percent of the American population are psychopaths. They can neighbors, friends and fellow workers with the telltale trait - they want to use and manipulate you. I have had 26 different jobs by my last count and thinking back on all the bad bosses I've had, I can believe this.