The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
The Waiter, The Bard, And Lots Of Cops
Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica - Dublanica (whose blog I haven't read) humorously describes the challenges and frustrations of waiting tables. Waiter Rant isn't exactly the book I wanted it to be -- I'd rather have less of the author's life story -- but I enjoyed it much more than Debra Ginsberg's Waiting. If you're browsing at the bookstore, at least take the time to read "Appendix A: 40 Tips on How to Be a Good Customer." Not only is this useful advice, but if you like the way it's written, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the book.

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson - To be honest, I've never had much interest in Shakespeare. I endured Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth in high school freshman English class, and I haven't given him much thought since. But when I saw this book by Bryson, an author I enjoy very much, and found that it was about Shakespeare the person rather than his works, I figured it was worth a shot (its brevity also attracted me). My gamble paid off, as Shakespeare is a fascinating book that examines the playwright's life in the context of late 1500s-early 1600s England. This is not a groundbreaking work (nor does it pretend to be), but Bryson succeeds in making the biography of someone I wouldn't ordinarily care about into something entertaining and worth reading. Note: an updated and illustrated edition is coming out next month.

On the Job: Behind the Stars of the Chicago Police Department by Daniel P. Smith - Despite my negative predisposition toward any book that I could've/should've written myself (my wife is a Chicago police officer), I found On the Job to be pretty insightful. Smith combines a history of the department with plentiful mini-bios of current and former officers. He interviews a broad range of men and women from various units, collecting humorous and heartbreaking stories from throughout the city. On the Job is undoubtedly favorable toward the department, which probably explains why it didn't get much attention from the local media where cop-bashing has been in fashion lately. Although the frustrations of police work are not ignored, the book avoids the jaded cynicism of bloggers like Second City Cop. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Chicago history or policing, especially anyone considering a career in the field.

Current tally: 79 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Thursday, September 10, 2009
Labor Day Anniversaries
Two notable past Labor Day weekends:

This Labor Day weekend, I intended to have a big "Chicago weekend" and do a bunch of things in the city to celebrate my 15 years here. At the same time, Half Price Books had another 20% off storewide sale.

For better or worse, I didn't do much of anything last weekend. Rather than focus on how lame I am for not really celebrating my Chicagoversary, I'll take pride in announcing that not only did I sit out the Half Price Books sale, but I also resisted the urge to redeem a Borders coupon good for 40% off one book. Instead, I devoted several hours to increasing my six-book margin, still chipping away at that pile of books amassed a year ago. While cleaning, I also found my receipt from Powell's Books in 2007, a truly epic shopping experience.

Current tally: 68 books finished, 62 books acquired

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Thursday, March 12, 2009
I Bought It At Polk Bros.
When I took this book to the counter at Half Price Books in Highland Park, the clerk's face lit up. "Oh, I remember when this book came in," he said. "I loved Polk Bros.!" I told him that two of my aunts had worked there, and one had met her husband there. "Well, I'm glad this book is going to a good home!"

I Bought It At Polk Bros. by Ann Paden is the classic tale of the children of immigrants working hard and succeeding in America. Sol Polk (nee Pokovitch), his five brothers, and his sister built a retail empire that once dominated appliance, furniture, and electronics sales in Chicagoland.

They did it by moving high volumes of name-brand merchandise at low prices. That doesn't sound like a big deal today, but Polk Bros. revolutionized the appliance industry in many ways. When they started out, most stores carried only one or two name brands, and the list price was unshakable. In fact, many manufacturers were reluctant to deal with the Polks because they didn't want their brands to be cheapened by discounting. Most manufacturers eventually changed their minds once they saw how quickly the skilled Polk Bros. salesmen turned over inventory.

Promotions were another key to Polk Bros.' success. Many Chicagoans remember the thousands of lighted, plastic "Jolly Super Santa Claus" lawn ornaments from Polk Bros., but that was only one of many premium or giveaway offers contrived to bring people into the stores. They gave away crates of fruit, circus tickets, and just about anything else they could think of. The book begins with Polk Bros.' 20th anniversary party: they bought out Chicago Stadium for a night, gave away tickets to customers, and treated them to a live broadcast of Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town" followed by an Ice Capades show.

I learned a lot about retail history from this book. For example, in the 1930s the utility companies used to sell appliances to encourage people to use more electricity and natural gas. Before he opened his first store, Sol Polk sold electric irons door-to-door for Commonwealth Edison.

Polk Bros. deserves special credit for what I call "going out of business with honor." They ceased retail operations in 1992 because their stores were losing money, but they made this decision from a position where they could still pay their employees (including severance) and suppliers. The company never went bankrupt. One could cite many reasons for Polk Bros.' demise, including a changing market with greater competition, antiquated information systems that would have been costly to update, a devastating warehouse fire in 1987, and the death of founder Sol Polk (preceded by his brothers). The company's remaining assets were transferred to the Polk Bros. Foundation, which is still granting millions of dollars (nearly $24 million in 2007) to Chicago social service, education, culture, and health organizations.

Paden discusses such unpleasantries as the stress on the family caused by the brothers' insane work schedule, but the book is generally positive and celebratory. Since it is copyrighted by the Polk Bros. Foundation, I can't help wondering whether that influenced how certain events were covered. The photo section is entertaining but too brief, and I would have liked to see examples of the advertising that the author describes.

I Bought It At Polk Bros. follows a prominent retailer in a rapidly changing consumer environment. I would recommend it to someone interested in 20th century Chicago or retail history, or even anyone who wonders about the source of that Jolly Super Santa Claus in the attic.

Current tally: 19 books finished, 18 books acquired

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Saturday, February 07, 2009
It Ain't Pretty But It's Real
When I moved to Chicago, I couldn't read enough about it. Although I grew up in the metropolitan area, it wasn't the same as calling the big city my home. Alas, after nearly 15 years, much of that enthusiasm has disappeared. Now I've joined the majority of Chicagoans that I once scorned -- the kind who don't visit the museums, marvel at the architecture, or study the city's vivid history. Heck, I haven't even read Erik Larson's The Devil and the White City, surely the best known Chicago book in recent years, though my wife bought me a copy long ago.

So I guess it was out of character for me to be attracted to It Ain't Pretty But It's Real, the second book written by longtime WBBM-TV (Channel 2) newsman John Drummond (the first, which I have not read, being Thirty Years in the Trenches).

Most of the stories in the book are from my lifetime, but I didn't know much about them (I've been a news junkie since at least 1980, but I was more interested in national and international affairs). Drummond digs into the seedy side of Chicago, particularly organized crime. It's colorful stuff, such as the tale of a failed mob hit at a golf course. There are chapters about boxer Tony Zale, tough cop Frank Pape, bank robbers, missing persons, American Nazis, and more, but mobsters dominate, especially later in the book. I didn't know much about the latter-day (i.e., post-Giancana) Chicago Outfit, and this book provides a good introduction. Overall, it is an entertaining, gritty collection from one of Chicago's most famous news reporters.

Current tally: 11 books finished, 9 books acquired

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008
It was bad enough when I dreamed last night that my wife had died. Then I woke up to this. Although there was no mention in my dream about whether she died in the line of duty, it made today's sad news that much more disturbing.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008
Bastard of the Day
I would be remiss if I didn't name Cook County Board President Todd "the Toddler" Stroger as the bastard of July 1st. Today his 1% county sales tax increase went into effect. One percent doesn't sound like much, but it makes Chicago sales taxes the highest of any major U.S. city.

Want to go shopping for a new wardrobe on Michigan Avenue? Now you'll have to pay 10.25% sales tax on your purchase. In the face of such depressing news, some people will go out for a nice dinner to raise their spirits. They'll have to pay the county's new tax, too. And speaking of spirits, you can't even drown your sorrows in booze without handing over that extra 1% tithe to the Toddler.

Stroger's timing is impeccable. Sales taxes are going up at a time when gas prices are high enough to discourage residents from traveling outside the county to make their purchases. And with the economy in the toilet (if you care to argue that point with me, buzz off), what better time to stick it to Cook County residents?

Honorary bastard awards go to the fools who voted for the incapacitated incumbent, Todd's dad, in the 2006 Democratic primary instead of Forrest Claypool, who wouldn't have raised taxes (I could say the same for those who chose Stroger over Tony Peraica in the general election, but Peraica is kind of a goof with his own set of issues). The Tribune suggests that we hunt down everyone responsible and force them to repent or run them out of office.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Bastard of the Day
This goes to Mayor Daley's 33 sycophants on the Chicago City Council who voted today to desecrate Grant Park with the new Chicago Children's Museum. Score another victory for clout and another defeat for the citizens of Chicago. As the Chicago Tribune made abundantly clear, there are plenty of other locations in the city that would benefit more from a museum development than the already overcrowded downtown area and particularly Grant Park.

On the other hand, thank you very much to Gene Schulter, my alderman, for opposing the museum location. He recently e-mailed constituents asking for opinions about this controversial topic (he must have read my response!). I wonder how many of the 33 "yes" voters bothered to do the same.

UPDATE 06/12/2008 - Here's what a Trib editorial said about a perpetual bastard:
Ald. Bernard Stone (50th) said it would be wrong to survey Chicagoans about this hugely unpopular move. Why not take a poll? Because, Stone suggested, citizens oppose this taking of Grant Park only because they've been "brainwashed by the media."
If he believes it's okay to override the local alderman's wishes, then why didn't he put the North Shore Channel bicycle bridge up for a vote before the City Council? I don't live in Rogers Park, but I may have to volunteer for whoever runs against that bastard next time. He just pisses me off too often.

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Friday, May 09, 2008
Bastard of the Day
Perennial bastard Alderman Bernard Stone is at it again. This time he wants to put a senior center in Warren Park.* This sums it up nicely:

"Parkland is not a land bank for other government agencies," said Erma Tranter of the Friends of the Park organization.
It's Rogers Park, for goodness' sake. There are plenty of vacant lots and dilapidated properties that would be ideal for a senior center rather than stealing parkland from the general populace.

This might be the best comment on a Tribune story I've ever read:
For years we've screwed ourselves "for the sake of the children." Now that the boomers are getting up in years it's time to screw ourselves "for the sake of the seniors."
Speaking of seniors, I wish that crusty, old bastard Stone would just retire already.

* Although the article doesn't mention Stone until the last few paragraphs, anybody who knows Chicago politics knows that an alderman is always responsible for what is or is not built in his ward. Recall how Stone ridiculously used another senior project to deny a pedestrian/bicyclist bridge. If the Chicago Children's Museum desecrates Grant Park, it will be a rare example of an alderman not getting his way -- bowing to the ultimate clout, Mayor Daley.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008
Bastard of the Day
My life has rarely been enriched by the Chicago Tribune Web site's message boards, but combative commenters have reached a new low arguing about the death of bicyclist and teacher Amanda "Mandy" Annis.

Cyclists and motorists have been duking it out on the Trib's message boards frequently this spring. Every article about bicycling draws hostile responses where each side condemns the behavior of the other. Discussions get especially heated regarding articles about cyclist deaths. Most commenters don't even pay attention to the facts behind each story -- they just trot out a tired litany of reasons the other side must be to blame.

I've grown used to the hatred and ill-formed arguments by now, but the comments about Annis really struck a nerve. For most of the day, the Tribune had a brief article about the incident. Anti-motorist and anti-cyclist commenters faced off in page after page of often mean-spirited messages. Then this afternoon, the Tribune replaced the brief with an in-depth article about Annis -- her kindness, her achievements, and perhaps most heartbreaking, her pending engagement. The Tribune included a photo of the smiling young teacher in her classroom. This was a woman who had already done good things in her 24 years and had an even brighter future.

After the updated story was published, a wave of comments from friends and family remembering Annis appeared on the message boards. Alas, they were interspersed with those of the warring factions who were unable to give up their pointless dispute, people who'd been quarreling all day and probably didn't even know the Tribune had posted a new version of the story. I wish those grieving for her didn't have to plow through such malicious nonsense.

And yet, it got worse. As family and friends wrote of this young life taken too soon, some bastards had the audacity to say, in essence, "Save your remembrances for the obituary. This is a news story, and you can't stop us from fighting about it."

For a sense of the intensity of the debate, look at how many comments were posted and the ID number of the last comment. As of 11:30 PM, there were 255 comments, and the last ID number was 319. That means 64 comments -- 20 percent -- were removed by Tribune editors for crossing the line of decency.

Annis' death is tragic by any measure. Shame on the bickering bastards who can't set aside their conflict for a little compassion.

UPDATE 05/02/2008 - In a Tribune commentary, Kevin Williams offers a suggestion:
...Wheel Freedom Day. No wheels. No skates, bikes, cars or cabs. Everybody's on foot until we all calm down. Because everybody is mad, and nobody is thinking.
Naturally, his commentary has drawn even more argumentative bastards into the fray. Meanwhile, Annis' smiling, young face graces the top of the Tribune's homepage this morning.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Bastard of the Day
How many times is Alderman Bernard Stone going to win this award? He's the best reason not to live in Rogers Park... and that's saying something because I can think of an awful lot of reasons not to live in Rogers Park.

Some Chicago aldermen want home sellers to share the burden of the city's real estate transfer tax with buyers (don't sellers already pay a transfer tax to Cook County?). Stone, the same bastard who declared that he deserves a $20,000 raise ($98K/year isn't enough), and also the same bastard who refused to allow a bridge for a bike path just because nobody licked his boots in the process, says, "Prices have appreciated so greatly over the last few years I am really not going to cry too much for the sellers."

Look here, you bastard. Not everyone draws a six-figure salary for a part-time job like alderman. For most people, their homes are their primary, if not sole, retirement investment. Why should you be allowed to skim money from them? Most of those people need every penny they can get from selling their homes.

Worst of all, this is an "escape tax," a way to soak people one last time before they leave Chicago. When we sell our house, we won't benefit from any real estate transfer tax we pay because we'll be gone. How fair is that? At least buyers paying the real estate transfer tax will theoretically get something for their money.

Geez, I can't believe there aren't enough intelligent people in Rogers Park to bounce this bastard out of office.

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Sunday, March 02, 2008
Hats Off to Dorothy!
Former -- dare I say legendary -- Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman was arrested for criminal trespassing in Montgomery, AL today after an altercation at the hospital where her elderly aunt was being treated. Tillman stated, "They knocked me down on the ground. They knocked my hat off..."

Whoa! Stop right there. You do not knock off this lady's hat. It's in that Jim Croce song:

You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger
And you don't knock off Dorothy's hat, da do da do...

"One of them put his knees on my spine and threatened to Taser me," she continued. Ouch, that sounds a bit harsh considering Tillman is 60 years old and, as far as I can tell, does not take steroids or HGH. Then the officers put her in "leg chains and shackles." Those Montgomery police don't mess around! She's probably still on their list from her civil rights days. At least she wasn't packing heat today like she did in the City Council.

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Friday, February 08, 2008
Eric Zorn, Please Change the Subject!
I understand that the concept of Chicagoans reserving shoveled-out street parking with old furniture must be fascinating to a Michigan native, but you've milked the subject for far too many Chicago Tribune columns and "Change of Subject" blog entries* over the years. And while the Chicago Reader's Ben Joravsky probably takes some pride in being "Mr. TIF" (though I may be the only person who refers to him by that name), I don't think you want to be known as "Mr. Dibs." Let's move on...

EZ, you were right about the above illustration coming in handy!

On the other hand, I like the first sentence of your "Bootlegging H2O" entry:

We don't go through a lot of bottled water at the Zorns, really -- Chicago tap water is plenty potable, just not particularly portable.
Nice alliteration. Alas, the right wingers had a field day commenting on that post with their peculiar belief that "liberals" are supposed to love all taxes and pay them with glee. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised anymore.

* The Google search includes some other uses of dibs, but the majority of the results relate to this topic.

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Monday, January 28, 2008
Duh! Trib's "Neighborhoods For Sale" Series
How cash, clout transform Chicago neighborhoods
DEVELOPERS: Many give to aldermanic campaigns in quest to build bigger, pricier projects.
ALDERMEN: They decide who can build what. Money, not planning, often drives process.
HOMEOWNERS: They are often left out of the decision-making and boxed in by towering structures.

Community input an illusion
ALDERMEN: They decide who can build what. Money, not planning, often drives the process.
ADVISORY GROUPS: Billed as neighborhood's voice, they are often stacked with developers.

This is the latest investigative series from the Chicago Tribune? Who assigned these stories, some out-of-towner who's never read Mike Royko? I thought everybody already knew how things get built in this city. The Chicago Reader's Ben "TIF" Joravsky has been writing about this sort of thing for years. The Tribune casts a wider net than Joravsky by creating a database to cross-reference zoning changes and campaign contributions, as well as including graphics that aren't in the Reader's budget, but it's really just the same old story that's been told since the golden days of boodle.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008
Zell to Demolish Former Tribune Competitor?
The ink is barely dry on Sam Zell's purchase of the Tribune Company, and now he wants to tear down the former Chicago Daily News building, known as 2 N. Riverside Plaza. Apparently, he isn't happy just owning the largest newspaper in town; now he wants to erase all memories of its competitors. Too bad Donald Trump flattened the old Sun-Times building before Zell got the chance.

The article notes that 2 N. Riverside Plaza has served as Zell's headquarters for many years (I guess he isn't the sentimental type). I interviewed there with one of his companies in 1996. American Classic Voyages ran riverboat cruises on the Mississippi and its tributaries (after a sale or two, I think it is now part of Majestic America Line). I found it odd that the recruiter gave me more material about Zell than about the company. I guess I was supposed to be impressed by his maverick personality -- the recruiter certainly was.

I love all of Chicago's Art Deco architecture so I hope Mayor Daley talks Zell out of demolishing 2 N. Riverside Plaza.

UPDATE - I just had a thought... I wonder if Zell will use 2 N. Riverside Plaza as leverage to get the state to take over Wrigley Field. So far, Daley is against that, but maybe Zell is willing to "save" 2 N. Riverside if Daley has a change of heart. Or maybe Daley already has.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Bastard of the Day
When I first read Mayor Daley's outburst regarding the proposal to befoul Grant Park with the Chicago Children's Museum, I was furious. In general, I have supported him despite his occasional missteps, but this was too much. I decided to sleep on it, hoping he would apologize for this latest embarrassing verbal gaffe. Instead, he reiterated his position. Here's what the bastard said on Monday:
You mean you don't want children from the city in Grant Park? Why? Are they black? Are they white? Are they Hispanic? Are they poor? You don't want children? We have children in Grant Park all the time. This is a park for the entire city. What do you mean no one wants children down there? Why not? Wouldn't you want children down there?
This is the most inanely misdirected rant I've ever read. Of course, there are children in Grant Park, children of all colors and classes. And that has nothing to do with whether to build a museum there. Grant Park is supposed to be protected as "Public Ground -- A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever." Some supporters of the Chicago Children's Museum are claiming that this law does not exactly apply, but those arguments clearly go against the spirit of the law if not the letter. Alderman Brendan Reilly, who sadly lacks the clout of his predecessor, Burton Natarus, has held nine public meetings about this. He says race was never an issue in any of those meetings, meetings that Daley couldn't be bothered to attend.

There are other ideal locations for the museum. What about -- duh -- the Museum Campus? That would elevate the Chicago Children's Museum's status immensely, putting it in the company of world-class institutions like the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. Another option is Northerly Island, former location of Meigs Field. Those areas do not have the special legal status of Grant Park.

Here's a radical idea. If you, Mayor Daley, really give a damn about poor kids, why not locate the new museum where it can do some economic good? Instead of burying it amidst the jewels of the lakefront, put it in a neighborhood that could use an anchor for some stability. Put it where new restaurants, stores, and other businesses can open to serve museum visitors, offering jobs to those kids' parents where now there are few. As far as I can tell, that option has never been on the table.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007
News Items

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Friday, July 27, 2007
Tonight I had dinner at Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill. It's only a block away on Rockwell Street (hence the name) and their food is very good. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune declared their hamburger one of the top ten in Chicagoland, but I usually order the BBQ chicken sandwich. I wish they would update their menu more often (it has hardly changed since they opened three years ago), but I guess it's wise to stick with your strengths.

Anyway, I was eating a bowl of chicken tortilla soup and reading The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford when I noticed the song playing on the restaurant's satellite radio channel. It was "Somebody's Watching Me" by 1980s one-hit wonder Rockwell. That song has popped into my head hundreds if not thousands of times in the ten years since I started dating my wife -- she lived on Rockwell Street at the time.

And tonight I finally heard Rockwell in Rockwell's on Rockwell Street.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007
News Items

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
News Items

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Saturday, July 21, 2007
Bastard of the Day
After a slow but steady decline, Leona's Restaurants (the whole freakin' chain) are collectively the Bastard of the Day. It all started when they stopped offering meat lasagna several years ago. Sure, you can get the five-cheese lasagna with meat sauce on top, but it isn't the same. Then a year or two ago they eliminated their whole wheat crust pizza (which unlike most whole wheat crusts, did not taste like cardboard or sawdust) from the menu. Well, technically it wasn't eliminated from the menu because they kept passing out the old menus, but if you tried to order it, you were S.O.L.

The best pizza crust from Leona's has always been their delicious, buttery, cornmeal deep-dish. It was square to fill the entire box, and Leona's offered special toppings that weren't available on the "regular" thin crust. My favorite was the Italian meats pizza, which included the usual sausage and pepperoni along with tasty meatball slices. The sauce was thick and rich, and the cheese was plentiful.

So tonight when I ordered the Italian meats pizza from the new Leona's menu, I expected that fantastic pizza. The new menu doesn't say anything about the crust, but I assumed since it was more expensive than the thin crust and was categorized under "gourmet pizza pies" that it would be the cornmeal crust I love.

Alas, it was not; the Leona's deep-dish crust is no more. I paid $18.75 for a large pizza, and the crust was about two millimeters thick. Even if I didn't hate superthin crust (and I really, really do), this pizza was utter crap. The toppings were sparse, there was a mere hint of sauce, the cheese was adequate at best, and any spot not covered with cheese was charred. The superthin crust meant there was barely enough to feed the two of us; usually a large pizza is good for at least a lunch or two worth of leftovers.

My wife works evenings, and while she's working I eat cheap, mediocre dinners alone -- frozen lasagna, frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, maybe a bowl of cereal, or creamed chipped beef on toast for goodness' sake. When I'm eating with my wife, I want a good meal for a change. Leona's has always delivered (in all senses of the word) until tonight. I hope they realize their mistake and bring back the real pizza crust, and I hope they fire the bastard who took it off the menu in the first place. In the meantime, there are at least a dozen pizza joints nearby that make twice the pizza for two thirds of the price. Arrivederci, Leona's!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Attention Mayor Daley!

Dear Honorable Richard M. Daley,

As I was bicycling the street route from the North Branch Trail toward the lakefront, I made a shocking discovery. In the Edgebrook neighborhood, I encountered two (2!) intersections with no traffic controls whatsoever. No stoplights, no stop signs, no yield signs, nothing. I trust that this is only a temporary condition and that your "traffic-calming" methods will be implemented soon.

Overall I don't have many complaints about how the city of Chicago is run, but this traffic calming crap has to stop! The idea is that by placing stop signs everywhere (along with occasional speed bumps), drivers will slow down. But it really just frustrates people and encourages them to run stop signs. When there are stop signs at every minor street, people don't recognize which intersections are truly important or dangerous. So they treat them all the same and roll right through.

The mayor wants to encourage people to ride bicycles. I want to obey traffic laws (though I may be in the minority of riders). But when there is a stop sign at every freaking intersection, bicycling becomes a tedious process of braking, downshifting, accelerating, and upshifting with only a few hundred feet at most of real riding in between. City streets are not my favorite cycling environment to begin with, but what little pleasure I find between dodging open car doors and potholes has been sucked away by the proliferation of stop signs in the name of traffic calming.

My nearest bike path is in River Park (part of the North Shore Channel path described in Biking Illinois) only one mile from my home. To get there, I have to negotiate eleven (11!!) stop signs plus one stoplight. At every intersection, traffic in all directions must stop; there are no "two-way" stops. Another favorite example of traffic calming gone wild is Manor Avenue. Though the street is only 0.6 mile long, one encounters eight (8!) stop signs plus a railroad crossing and a speed bump. On top of that, four of those stop signs are placed at intersections with dead-end streets less than a block long. Earlier this year, Eric Zorn ranted about drivers and cyclists ignoring stop signs, but with ridiculous policies like Mayor Daley has implemented, it's hard to obey the law if you ever want to get anywhere.

Mayor Daley paints himself "green" with his rooftop gardens and such, but how much environmental damage is caused by traffic calming? All those stop signs have a significant impact on gasoline consumption and pollution creation. A motor uses much less energy to maintain speed than to accelerate, but drivers on Manor Avenue have to accelerate eight times in one kilometer!

A lot of people drive like idiots in Chicago, and a good number of cyclists are guilty as well. But the solution is to enforce traffic laws, not to make travel on every street painful. Limit the number of stop signs and issue citations for those who run through them. If people are driving too fast, well, that's what those new laser speed guns are for -- if drivers had any fear whatsoever of traffic laws actually being enforced, they wouldn't drive as recklessly as they do. All those stupid stop signs don't help anyone when people habitually run them. Just ask the family of this kid.

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Friday, July 06, 2007
News Items
Comments on a few of today's news stories...
Christopher Vaughn, accused of murdering his wife and three children, has been placed on suicide watch at the Will County Jail, police said Thursday after he made his first Illinois court appearance.
As my wife said, they can watch, but nobody should stop him. Wouldn't it take some pressure off our legal and prison systems to just let people in jails and prisons kill themselves? Sure, he's innocent until proven guilty, but why expend any extra effort to make sure he stays alive for his trial? Too bad he didn't commit suicide before allegedly snuffing out his entire family.
Money from leasing four publicly owned downtown parking garages will provide financing for about 100 neighborhood park-improvement projects, from new fieldhouses at five parks to new playgrounds at 50 others, Mayor Richard Daley announced Thursday.
The Chicago Reader article published yesterday about the Olympic equestrian center also presented a laundry list of desperately needed Chicago park improvements. The same day, Mayor Daley declared that all this money is going to the parks. Coincidence? Whatever -- I don't care as long as the work gets done.
A tourist from Tennessee was arrested at the Sears Tower on Thursday morning after she tried to visit the Skydeck with a loaded gun in her purse, police said.
A 56-year-old woman brought a .38 into the Sears Tower and was shocked to find herself arrested. I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for this bonehead, despite the useful quote from her neighbor that she is a "responsible pillar of the community" (sheesh!). Anyone licensed for concealed carry darn well ought to know that gun laws vary from state to state. Plus, she should have known bringing a weapon into a heightened-security venue like the Sears Tower was probably not a good idea. This case brings to mind something I thought should have been done long ago, though -- states and municipalities with restrictive gun laws should post them on major highways.
A 4-year-old Carpentersville girl who called 911 almost 300 times on her mother's deactivated cell phone finally gave up her address after dispatchers promised her a snack from McDonald's.
This is a surprisingly big problem. Some 911 centers get 5-10 calls per day from kids playing with old cell phones (a deactivated phone can still call -- and can only call -- 911). That adds up to thousands of calls per year. This particular kid was causing trouble for an entire month, up to 20 times a day. Kudos to the dispatcher who thought up the McDonald's ruse to get the kid's location.


The Dark Side of the Olympics
This article by George Monbiot should be required reading for Chicagoans. In all the hype about competing for the 2016 Summer Games, no one talks about stuff like this:

In every city [the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions] examined, the Olympic Games – accidentally or deliberately – have become a catalyst for mass evictions and impoverishment. Since 1988, over 2 million people have been driven from their homes to make way for the Olympics. The games have become a licence for land grabs.
Monbiot's article is directed at London, host of the 2012 Summer Games, but it certainly applies to us as well. While those getting the shaft will be mostly voiceless poor people (as usual), it doesn't always work out that way. For example, a story in this week's Chicago Reader describes the battle in Lake County over the proposed Olympic equestrian center. After reading Monbiot's brief history of Olympic displacement, I have little doubt that the equestrian center will be built regardless. At least he offers a solution in his conclusion:
None of this is an argument against the Olympic Games. It is an argument against moving them every four years. Let them stay in a city where the damage has already been done. And let it be anywhere but here.
That makes good sense for countless reasons (environmental, logistical, organizational, etc.), but I doubt it will ever happen. The International Olympic Committee thoroughly enjoys watching civic leaders from around the world grovel every time another host city is about to be named. The Olympics are big business, and a permanent location would spoil all of their fun.

(Note: In the past, I've posted positive comments about the 2016 Olympics on other blogs. Right now, consider me conflicted; I haven't decided whether it's good or bad overall. Of course, it matters little because those decisions will be made without regard for the common Chicagoan's opinion anyway.)

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Friday, June 23, 2006
Idiot of the Day
I am toning down my Bastard of the Day award today since this woman lost her husband. He was shot by police at a Dominick's grocery store. According to the Chicago Tribune:
As one officer detained an unidentified woman near the checkout lines, three tried to detain [James] King, who was described as 6 feet, 2 inches, tall and almost 400 pounds. One officer sprayed him with mace, and another got one handcuff on him before King withdrew a 9mm semiautomatic handgun, police said. Three of the officers "left the immediate scene," [Supt. Philip] Cline said, leaving one to fend off King. That officer shot and killed King in a shooting police have judged to be within department guidelines.
(A Chicago Sun-Times account says that this was all captured on the store's security cameras and mentions a detail omitted by the Tribune: that King not only drew but pointed his gun at the officer who then shot him.) Obviously, the three cops who left one alone to subdue this large man screwed up. One cannot imagine how they could possibly justify their actions. Two were probationary officers (first 18 months on the job), so they were fired. The third has been suspended for now and may be fired later. But the Idiot of the Day is widow Audrey King:
King's family said the father of two might be alive if the three officers had stayed to do their jobs. "It's devastating," said his wife, Audrey. "They were trained to handle situations like that. They're supposed to be professionals."
Your husband might be alive if he hadn't pulled a freaking gun on a police officer who was trying to arrest him! Sure, the police are "supposed to be professionals," but citizens aren't supposed to point guns at them! For that matter, who is to say that the situation would have played out differently with four officers instead of one? Is there a certain number of police who need to be present to discourage a person from drawing a gun on them? Maybe James King told Audrey, "You know, if there's just one cop, I'm gonna try to shoot him. But if four cops are there, I'll go quietly." Blaming the police for your husband's death after he draws a weapon on them in a grocery store is utterly ridiculous. The police are professionals, and they are trained to counter deadly force with... deadly force.

I'm sorry that Audrey will have to raise those two kids alone. But maybe their father should have thought about that before he pulled out his handgun. She has no right to fault the police for his death.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006
Bastard of the Day
Alderman Bernard Stone of Chicago's 50th Ward was already on my list for refusing to build a bridge for a bicycle path last year. The money was available, but he didn't use it. The funds were restricted, so he couldn't do anything else with the money. He just left it on the table to spite pedestrians and bicyclists, forcing them to cross the North Shore Channel on a narrow sidewalk beside a busy street instead. That alone makes him a bastard.

But yesterday, Stone had the gall to call for a $20,000 pay hike for aldermen over the next five years. But before you think, Oh, those poor, overworked aldermen must be so underpaid, consider that the current salary is $98,125 for what is officially a part-time job.
"I think we deserve it," asserted Stone, who was first elected in 1973. "At least I know I deserve it ... I think my constituents think I am entitled to it."
Stone is a career politician -- he's been an alderman since I turned three years old. Unsurprisingly, all those years in the City Council haven't taught him a lick about humility. What Stone deserves is to have his self-important ass tossed out of office. Shame on all you voters in Rogers Park who keep re-electing this putz, especially if you agree that he is "entitled" to a 20% pay raise.

My alderman, Gene Schulter, knows how ridiculous his salary has become. That's why he has refused several pay increases, drawing $82,000 instead of $98,125. That begs the question, Why does Bernie Stone need so much money? It doesn't cost $118,000 a year to live in Rogers Park. Conspiracy theorists, please comment...

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Thursday, April 27, 2006
Dueling Dwarfs
The Chicago Tribune reports that the dwarf wrestlers planning to appear tonight at Bar Chicago on Division Street should expect to be protested by a similarly sized activist named Gary Arnold. Arnold abhors the use of the word "midget" to promote these events because her perceives it as a slur. Plus he thinks the show is just about ridiculing people because of their size.

I think I'd have to side with the wrestlers. If they are able to turn their genetic situation into a way to make money, then that's great. All wrestling beyond college and the Olympics is about showmanship anyway. And that's synonymous with self-promotion and self-exploitation. If these guys aren't being forced against their will, who cares? It's not something I would watch, but I don't watch steroid-loaded, oversized, musclehead pro wrestlers either.

Likewise, if the wrestlers don't mind being called midgets, why should Arnold force his opinion about the word on them? If someone calls Arnold a midget, he can be offended. If someone calls the wrestlers midgets and they don't mind, why should Arnold have anything to do with it?

The big winner in this "controversy" is Bar Chicago. I had never even heard of the place, much less the "entertainment" they offer, before this story erupted in print and on local television.

Of course, the thought on every guy's mind upon reading this story is, What about midget porn? Again, that's not my thing, but this guy would be pretty upset if protesters like Arnold put a stop to it.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Sorry, Chuck
I may have to rethink my feelings about corporate prostitute Gale Norton's performance as Secretary of the Interior. Sure, she allowed and indeed facilitated an awful lot of damage to federal lands under her stewardship, but at least she made the right call about Soldier Field's national historic landmark status -- she revoked it. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin's delight is palpable in his article about the decision, a clear vindication of his opinion. Mayor Daley never should have allowed this misguided project to go forward, but instead he supported it wholeheartedly. The end result is, in Kamin's words, like "Starship Enterprise crash-landed atop the Parthenon."

I have a friend named Chuck who worked as an architect on the Soldier Field desecration project (incidentally, he used to like Kamin until he started criticizing the new Soldier Field). Thus far I have been polite whenever the topic has come up in conversation. But right now, I'm going to let him have it:
I know you were just following orders and working within the parameters you were given, but damn, that is one ugly stadium. I'm sure it is a pleasantly modern environment for the fans inside, but everyone who passes that place is either appalled by its clash of styles or simply depressed by the memory of the original.
The mistake by the lake, the eyesore on the lake shore, a spoiled memorial to those who died in the Great War. Sorry, Chuck.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006
Hail to the Chef
The Chicago Sun-Times had a headline Friday:
Daley appoints Trotter emergency chief
Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter is probably an appropriate choice for the new position of chief emergency officer. At first glance, however, I left out the "i" in chief. It just so happens that the executive chef and owner of one of Chicago's fanciest restaurants is Charlie Trotter. If I needed an emergency chef, I think he'd be the guy to call.

I wouldn't know from experience, though. Charlie Trotter's is the sort of place where a meal for one costs as much as a week's worth of groceries for two. Any dish with a name ten words long is far beyond anything I'd want to eat. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin Cobb Salad is made with quail eggs, for goodness' sake!

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Federated Dumps Field's Name
The way Marshall Field's stores have been passed around like a hot potato over the past couple of decades, I suppose this was inevitable. The Chicago legend's latest owner, Federated Department Stores (could that corporate name be any more lifeless?), announced today that they are changing all Field's stores into Macy's stores.

Field's is a Chicago tradition dating back to 1868--three years before the fire. Chicago shoppers have a strong emotional attachment to Field's. The huge store on State Street is lauded as a monument of retailing, and suburbanites visit with the reverence of pilgrims to some holy shrine. My family goes downtown every December for lunch at the Walnut Room beneath the gigantic Christmas tree. And even though sometimes they don't find much to buy that day, they return year after year. Field's patrons are so steeped in tradition that there was a tremendous uproar years ago when the store did something as seemingly trivial as changing the color of its shopping bags.

Chicago has a rich retailing and mail-order heritage, but it has faded in recent decades. Sears moved to the suburbs. Carson's and Field's were swallowed by larger corporations. Montgomery Ward's went bankrupt and closed its retail stores. The legacy of the golden years of Chicago merchandising is found on Chicago's lakefront. Marshall Field himself donated a large sum to start the Field Museum of Natural History. John G. Shedd, the second president of Marshall Field's, gave money to build the Shedd Aquarium. Julius Rosenwald of Sears funded the Museum of Science and Industry (he gave money to build YMCAs and thousands of schools throughout the country, too). Max Adler, who also made his fortune at Sears, bankrolled the Adler Planetarium. And A. Montomery Ward fought a twenty-year legal battle against lakefront privatization and development.

Replacing the venerable Marshall Field's name with Macy's especially hurts. Macy's is so "New York." I cannot imagine Chicago shoppers will ever feel the same about Macy's as they do about Field's. Mayor Daley, however, doesn't quite get it:

"Things change in life," he said. "If you are not willing to accept change, you stay in the past." The mayor called Federated a "very good corporate citizen." Regarding the State Street store, Federated plans to "reinforce that store," making it even more a "destination" than Field's has been.
Mr. Mayor, people come to Chicago to shop at Marshall Field's, not Macy's. Federated could have enhanced the State Street store without renaming it, and they will fight an uphill battle just to maintain the store's status, much less improve upon it.

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Friday, September 16, 2005
Carless And Carefree?
The Chicago Tribune has a story today about people who live without cars. It isn't that difficult to do in this city--I lived without a car for 3-1/2 years until I moved in with my wife who already owned one. If she didn't work late hours and we didn't have pets, we could probably live without it. Oddly enough, I grew up in the car-crazy western suburbs and she grew up in the city, but she is the one who wants to drive everywhere. I just don't think it's worth the hassle or the expense, and walking is so much healthier (city air pollution aside).

Anyway, this article presents a few examples of people living without automobiles. Unfortunately, the reporter loses credibility in the second and third paragraphs:

They are the carless people of Chicago, the folks who don't own a car either because they don't want one or they can't afford one. Either way, they are relatively immune to rising gas prices because, for the most part, they don't buy gas.

Having a chunk of the population car-free is good for Chicago's economy, economists say, because it means those people won't have to cut back on the rest of their spending to account for the bigger bite taken by gasoline.

Not owning a car does not mean a person is immune to rising gas prices, and an economist with even half a brain would have to agree. The problem is that everything is affected by rising gas prices. Every product on every shelf gets transported using gasoline and/or diesel fuel. Consequently, rising fuel prices will impact the price of everything one buys. Even people who don't buy gas are going to pay plenty more for everything else. I am shocked that the reporter would disregard that fact. And while higher gas prices won't take an obvious slice out of a non-driver's pie, it will leave that person with a smaller pie--getting fewer goods for the same amount of money. To put it another way, more expensive gas and diesel will take a "bigger bite" out of every slice before it gets to the consumer's mouth. No economist is quoted in the story, so I am inclined to believe the reporter simply made this up without thinking it through logically.

This is why I am concerned about dwindling resources and "peak oil," the point in time when we have used more oil than we have left, which will essentially be the "beginning of the end" of transportation as we know it. Unless the automakers, truck manufacturers, airplane builders, and train locomotive producers are holding back some wondrous alternative until we run out of oil (a popular but doubtful conspiracy theory), we are in for a world of hurt. How will we eat? It doesn't matter whether I walk, bike, or drive to the grocery store if the shelves are going to be empty when I get there. Living without a car is a great way to simplify one's life, improve the environment, and get exercise, but it absolutely offers no protection from increases in fuel costs.

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Friday, September 09, 2005
Chicago's Seven Wonders

First I have to say that this entire exercise is rather silly, but the Chicago Tribune has been collecting nominees for the "7 Wonders of Chicago," and today the masses are voting on which of the 14 nominees should make the final list. I hate the final list of nominees, actually. As Eric Zorn blogged in a Rumsfeld-esque way, "But you go into the voting booth with the wonders you have, not the wonders you want." Being my family's only resident Chicagoan (I'm speaking only of my "side"--several of my wife's relatives live in the city), I feel compelled to weigh in with my choices. Here they are, in no particular order:

What didn't make my list?


Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Chicago's Best Burgers
The Chicago Tribune put 34 judges to work tasting one hundred hamburgers to come up with Chicago's Best Burgers. I have never tried any of the top five, but I have been to three of the eleven runner-up restaurants.

When I worked in far-west suburban Yorkville around 1990, we occasionally ordered burgers from Bristol Tap in Bristol. Bristol Tap looks pretty much like a hundred other small-town Midwestern taverns, and one wouldn't suspect from the outside that they serve such fabulous burgers. It was a 30-minute roundtrip drive just to pick up our lunch, but it was always worth it. The burgers were huge, relatively inexpensive, and incredibly tasty. It's been more than a decade since I ate a Bristol Tap burger, but they really left an impression on me. I'm glad to see the Tribune was willing to go to the edge of the metropolitan area to check them out, and I gather that the reviewers were glad, too.

Another burger I've had several times is Hackney's. I've been to their locations in Wheeling and Glenview, the latter being a favorite meeting spot for my wife's Northeastern Illinois Rose Society. I'm not crazy about flowers, but I always tag along when their meetings are at Hackney's. Hackney burgers are very good, but Bristol Tap's are better.

While I had to drive to Bristol Tap and Hackney's, I could literally crawl to another runner-up, Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill--it's at the end of my block! Rockwell's has only been around for a year, but they honed their burger-making skills previously in Dallas where a local magazine named their burgers the best in town. Oddly enough, I can't remember ever eating a burger at Rockwell's. I love their barbecue chicken sandwich, and their chopped chicken salad is also good. The Tribune notes their great french fries, too. On Sundays, Rockwell's has an exceptional brunch buffet. I guess I will have to crawl on over for a burger sometime soon!

And shame on me for never dining at Square Kitchen, another nearby restaurant that made the runner-up list. I guess I need to get out more. It's hard to get used to living in a hip neighborhood.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005
North Shore Channel Path Improvements
As I mentioned in my last post, there is a multi-use path along the Chicago River and the North Shore Channel. It runs from Lawrence Avenue (4800N) all the way to the Ladd Arboretum in Evanston, a distance of more than seven miles each way. It begins with parallel asphalt and wood chip trails on the west side of the river from Lawrence to Argyle Street (5000N). A short, paved trail continues north, but one must cross the river on the Argyle bridge to follow the main path on the east side. Just south of Foster Avenue, the river forks off to the west and the North Shore Channel (formerly a sewage canal) continues north. At Lincoln Avenue (6050N), the path crosses over to the west side of the channel.

Yesterday I broke in a new pair of hiking boots by exploring some recent improvements. The city completed underpasses at Peterson Avenue (6000N) and Lincoln this spring. The path runs right beside the channel between them, with trail users protected by a black, wrought iron fence (Mayor Daley's preferred barrier). With lights and a wide, concrete path, the underpasses should be relatively safe. Now there are no at-grade street crossings from Argyle to Lincoln. This may be the longest uninterrupted path in the city aside from the lakefront.

Funding is available for a new pedestrian/bike bridge over the channel north of Lincoln, but word on the street is that Alderman Bernard Stone does not want to build it. This is ridiculous considering that the money will be lost (as opposed to being directed elsewhere in his ward) if the bridge isn't built. Instead, runners and cyclists have to cross on the Lincoln Avenue bridge to continue up the west side of the channel into Skokie and Evanston. Cyclists will have to brave Lincoln's heavy traffic (I'm thinking particularly of the younger ones; it's not a bad street for experienced riders). Runners and walkers will have to use the bridge's north sidewalk, which is more narrow than the path, and dodge the streetlight poles. Local cyclist Bob Kastigar has
photographically documented the problem.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Da Coach Gets Dissed
The Chicago Bears recently unveiled a sculpture honoring George Halas at Soldier Field. It features great players like Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, et al, but Mike Ditka is curiously missing. In addition to Ditka's outstanding career as a tight end, including a role on the 1963 championship team, this is the man Halas picked to lead the Bears as his own health was fading, a man to carry on the tradition. Ditka rose to the challenge, of course, by coaching the team to its only Super Bowl victory. By then, Halas was gone and Michael McCaskey was in charge. McCaskey never liked Ditka, and he got rid of him as soon as the team faltered.

Chicagoans love Ditka. The big story in August was whether Ditka would run for senator in place of Jim "Sex Club" Ryan. Ditka wisely declined, and the GOP foolishly chose Alan Keyes to run instead.

Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey wrote today about Ditka's exclusion, placing the blame squarely on the personal biases of the McCaskey family.
The Bears say Ditka didn't fit the concept of the sculpture, which, in part, focuses on the lineage of great running backs and linebackers in team history. They say they already had two players from his era, Butkus and Sayers. They also say that most of the players on the sculpture played their entire careers for the Bears. Ditka played six of his 12 seasons in Chicago, then went to Philadelphia and Dallas. The only way they could have narrowed their criteria anymore would have been by saying that anyone with the initials "M.D." was ineligible.
For what it's worth, only four players in Bears history have had those initials (don't ask me why I look up such things). The bottom line is that if Halas himself had chosen the players for the sculpture, Ditka would be there. Ditka would never admit it, but I'll bet he's disappointed to be left out. If he were running for the U.S. Senate, this flagrant dissing would probably be worth 10% in sympathy votes. One can only hope that Ditka will get his own statue once Michael McCaskey is gone.


Monday, September 20, 2004
Fines For Marijuana
This is the best idea I've heard in a long time. A Chicago police sergeant has suggested that the city should ticket people for possessing small amounts of marijuana rather than arresting them:

Sgt. Tom Donegan said he has long been fed up with making arrests for possession of small amounts of the drug, only to see judges later drop the charges. He said that court records from last year indicate that 94 percent of the 6,954 Chicago cases involving marijuana amounts smaller than 2.5 grams were dismissed, as were 81 percent of the cases involving from 2.5 to 10 grams. Donegan said assessing fines of $250 for possession of 10 grams or less would have raised $5 million for the city's coffers in 2003.
This proposition was announced the same day that City Hall suggested raising taxes on gasoline and natural gas. The problem with a gasoline tax is that people leave the city to buy gas (the city already charges an extra five cents). As for natural gas, since most Chicagoans heat their homes with it, an added tax there would be like a back-door real estate tax increase. The marijuana proposal is a better alternative. Not only would it increase city revenue (and cut the expense of paying police to go to court for cases that are thrown out), but it would take a burden off the courts, too, to the tune of 27-28 cases a day (6,954 cases divided by 250 weekdays). One addition I would suggest to prevent this from being abused by those who can afford the fines is a limit similar to speeding tickets: after a certain number of tickets, the offender should be arrested. Theoretically, a judge would be less likely to throw out a case knowing that the offender has violated the law several times to even end up in court.

Of course, as someone who uses lots of natural gas, some gasoline, and no marijuana, I could be biased. The city would never approve of it anyway. I predict that this is the first and last we will ever hear of this proposal.

[UPDATE 09/22/04]
I guess I was wrong. The Sun-Times has a front page story today about Mayor Daley's support for "pot tickets."

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Writing On The Wall
From the Tribune:

Chicago lost a quarter of its technical jobs in the last three years, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago report. And most of them were lost after experts declared the recession over in November 2001.

UIC's Center for Urban Economic Development analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which last April counted 47,000 jobs in the Chicago area, compared with 63,400 in March 2001 and 57,200 the following November.

The unemployment rate among Chicago area information technology workers was 3.8 percent in 2002, twice the rate during the technology boom three years earlier, the study said.

Remember, those unemployment numbers don't include all the IT people who have abandoned the field entirely (such as those who have become freelance copywriters or art supply/framing shop owners). Actually, this is just the news that I need right now, something that says, "Don't look back."


Wednesday, September 08, 2004
Wal-Mart & Chicago
The City of Chicago has been fighting Wal-Mart's attempts to open a store here. For decades, the company has ruined the commerce of one small town after another. With rural America conquered, they moved into the outer suburbs, then the inner suburbs, and now they want to build in the city. Alas, their reputation precedes them. Wages even lower than their prices, sexual discrimination, and the aforementioned destruction of local businesses are just a few of Wal-Mart's less endearing business practices. The City made demands regarding wages and benefits among other things. The latest I've heard is that Wal-Mart has given up on a south side location, but they are still hoping to open a store on the west side.

As a preservationist and a traveler who often visits small-town America, I have a considerable grudge against Wal-Mart. On the other hand, the bargain hunter in me has a hard time paying an extra 25% at another discount chain or even more at a local store. I recognize that this self-interest is harmful to society overall (if one person really does make a difference, as the cynic in me often wonders), which brings up an interesting dilemma. The same inner city people whose jobs are going to be impacted by Wal-Mart are the very people who need to stretch their dollars. The question is whether to accept the short-term gain of increased buying power knowing that the long-term result will be higher unemployment and/or lower wages.

Ultimately, it is a Faustian bargain that is impacting the entire retail sector. The Wal-Mart influence is encouraging or forcing other retailers to follow suit in order to offer competitive prices. One tactic is to revise (i.e., downgrade) job titles for long-term employees. The "new" jobs have a lower maximum pay rate, so employees have to accept a severe pay cut (for example, from $14/hour to $11/hour, a 20% cut, which translates to $6,000 a year less for doing the same job) or find a new job elsewhere.

Costco is a notable exception to the low wage strategy. Naturally, Wall Street doesn't like their approach (also check out the chart and commentary here).


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