Thursday, July 16, 2009

The More Things Change . . .

News comes this morning of the the change in signage down on South Wacker Drive as Sears becomes Willis. It doesn't bother me all that much because now I can finally bring my own middle name out of hiding. Almost 59 years ago, I took the name of my father, whose middle name was Willis. For most of my life I have avoided questions about what the "W" in my complete signature stood for. The uptight middle name was a sandbar that partially blocked the harbor of being cool.

There really are only two references in modern culture to this odd little name.

There was Willis Reed, the 6'9" center for the New York Knicks. A physical player, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1964 he began his career with what was arguably the worst team in the league. From 1956 to 1966 the Knicks finished last nine times. In the 1963 season the team only won 22 games. Three years later the Knicks, led by my man Willis, won the Championship. In the championship game Reed, despite a torn muscle in his thigh, suited up and scored the first four points of the game. Then he sat down. The team won by 14 points.

But sharing a name with a man like that isn't enough for a 5'10" white guy who never quite got the hang of dribbling a basketball without peeking to see where it would bounce next.

The second reference comes from Diff'rent Strokes, the t.v. comedy that ran from 1978 to 1986. This sitcom starred Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson and Todd Bridges as his older brother, Willis, two African-American children from a poor Harlem neighborhood. Improbably they were adopted by a rich white widower, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), after their mother, Drummond's maid, died. One of Coleman's signature lines was Whatcha talkin' bout . . . at the end of which anybody's name could be attached. Because Willis was his older brother, that name ended up at the end of the tag line most often.

But, here again, I am as far from Harlem as Captain Phil and the good men of the Cornelia Marie are from Wilmette.

So I'm not griping about this 110-story Chicago icon taking my middle name. It might be good for both of us. After all, things change. Sears mailed itself out of town over a decade ago, leaving only its name behind, and squatted out in Hoffman Estates on top of what used to be the Poplar Creek Music Theater, the single most difficult venue to drive out of after a concert in the history of rock and roll. Since that time how many millions of folks have looked at the tallest building in North America down there on Wacker and had the name of Sears go through their minds? Not a bad little billboard, especially when you're not paying for it.

While we're at it, let's rename Wrigley Field as well. We're nearly two generations away from Wrigley ownership -- that's nearly a quarter of a century, small potatoes when you think of how long the team has gone without a World Series victory -- but long enough to go back farther than many Cubs fans have been alive. Thay'd have to sell gobs of gum to pay for that amount of advertising.

Not to mention the fact, that even when they owned the team the Wrigley family ran it on the cheap. Remember Billy Williams, whose retired number now flies above left field, leaving for Oakland because he couldn't get a hundred grand a year? Or the 1981 team that went 38 and 65 before the likes of Doug Capilla and Randy Martz and Mike Lum went out on strike? Did you know that 63 different ballplayers put on Cubbie blue over the last fifty seasons without ever appearing in a Cub victory? To name just two, Wayne Schurr, a right-handed relief pitcher who threw in 26 games, all losses, in 1964; and Jack Warner, another right-handed reliever who pitched in parts of four seasons (1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965), appearing in 32 games without ever participating in a victory (www.bleedcubbieblue.com).

Meanwhile, the founder of the company, old Bill, who made a fortune upon discovering that gum sold better than baking soda, hunkered down in his 20,000 square foot pad on Lakeview, complete with ballroom, bandstand, and cedar-lined coat room.

Die-hard (how about that for a descriptor?) Cubs fans worked and waited for the light and went without the meat and cursed the bread. So while we're re-naming Willis, let's do Wrigley Field, too.


And, maybe we can also go after the big white building down on the river across from the joint the current owners of the Cubs maintain. Instead of Wrigley, call it the Ern. For Mr. Cub who never played on a championship team. Earn . . . For all of the fans over the years who have earned a winner . . . some of whom have already checked out. Urn . . . for the ashes of our unfulfilled dreams, scattered in the ivy five miles north on Clark Street.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

To market, to market




Yesterday morning I took my creaky knees for a walk down to the Green City Market, the Wednesday and Saturday produce bazaar in Lincoln Park. A light mist was falling, but it takes more than that to ruin a walk through Lincoln Park. Strolling past North Pond and the vagrant geese, across from Old Man Wrigley's mansion on Lakeview, you get a feeling that life is, on the whole, pretty darned good.

Yeah, Gio pulled an oblique muscle in batting practice and Number 12 is sulking on the bench, but trying to avoid the goose poop, while ogling the terra cotta splendor of the 20,000 square foot joint across the street is a reminder to keep an eye on the small things. Remember the words of Jeremiah . . . Give glory to the LORD your God, Before He brings darkness And before your feet stumble On the dusky mountains, And while you are hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, And turns it into gloom.

Listen to the prophet, Alfonso.

The Green City Market on a Wednesday is filled with dogs on leashes and kids in high tech strollers with insulated cabins, cup holders, and gyro-controlled balancing systems. Also, human beings of the retired variety and 30-something moms out for their mid-morning spin through the produce.

I like everything about it. I like the folks who come there, the ones who come to sell and the ones who come to buy. I like trolling past the blueberries, raspberries and strawberries while the John Hancock looms darkly in the background. I like the single guitarist, playing Paul Simon's America while the folks a few feet away order a mid-morning treat of crepes. And I like the brightness of freshly cut flowers and the piquancy of a sample of five-year old cheddar.

I especially like looking at the names of the farms. Places like the Hoosier Mama Pie Company, the Kinnikinnick Farm, the Blue Marble Family Farm and Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin. Such names are a reminder in the middle of this big city that we live and breathe because hard working folks get up early most every day to provide the nourishment we need.

It isn't easy work. I got to talking with the farmer at the Mick Klug stand about how rainy the summer season has been. While he bagged up my blueberries, I said that all the rain was probably good for farmers. Not so. For him it meant losing half his cherry crop. Early rain, it turns out, causes cherries to absorb moisture and swell to the bursting point. They crack open and are ruined. For me the rain meant that I rode my bike less than I would like.

I came home loaded with stuff. Blueberries, raspberries, some fresh lettuce. Four tomatoes. Some unopened lilies for the dining room table. And a bag marked Mushroom Medley. I had some of the blueberries and raspberries for breakfast this morning. They were good. Really good.

In Nature's Metropolis William Cronon wrote, "To do right by nature and people in the country, one has to do right by them in the city as well, for the two seem always to find in each other their own image . . . We can only take them together and, in making the journey between them, find a way of life that does justice to them both."

The Green City Market . . . that's one small way of trying leading a life that is based on such justice.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky with One Hand Wavin' Free

It's not because my birthday is in July that makes me like it better than any other month of the year. Up here in the Midwest, summer finally hits its stride on the Fourth and from there straight on to Labor Day it's barbecue smoke and sweat. July is the only month of the year that begins with fireworks and ends with Back to School sales -- at the start a celebration of freedom and in the end a realization for school kids that the freedom thing is like an Independence Day sparkler . . . it burns bright but it doesn't last very long.

If you look at the charts, you'll see that over the year July has danced to an awesome soundtrack. No music is as memorable as summer music, and the music of July begs to be played with the volume up and the windows rolled down. At least it used to . . . before we put the buds in our ears.

It gives me the fan-tods to think of years gone by, especially my youth. I was nearly 15-years-old in early July of 1965, for example, and that was 44 years ago. To look back 44 years at that point in my life would have been to see that Warren G. Harding was the President of the United States and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of first degree murder, history book stuff. Now it's 44 years later, and I'm wondering what happened.

In early July of 1965 Mr. Tambourine Man, recorded by The Byrds spent its first week at the top of Chicago's WLS Silver Dollar Survey. Bob Dylan, who has never had a number one hit, wrote the song, and The Byrds got hold of the demo and took the song to Number One on their first try.

When the song was recorded the band (Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke) was so green that only McGuinn played on the record. The backing track was furnished by a group of session men called The Wrecking Crew -- Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell. Blaine holds a Grammy Award record, playing drums on six different Grammy Award winning songs. Knechtel played bass on a number of songs for the bass-less Doors and went on to play with Bread. Russell, of course, has played for and with just about everyone in pop music, from Gary Lewis and the Playboys to Eric Clapton. McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang vocals over that track.

As a Chicagoan I'm proud when I listen to McGuinn's work on the 12-string Rickenbacker for a couple of reasons. McGuinn was born right here in the Windy City and attended the Latin School. In 1957 he enrolled in the Old Town School of Music on North Lincoln Avenue, where he learned the five-string banjo, lessons that paid off on "Mr. Tambourine Man," on which he used a flat pick with metal finger picks on his middle and ring fingers to get the distinctive sound. Engineer Ray Gerhardt compressed the guitar line, in order to obtain a fuller, more sustained sound, a sound that we think of now as the distinctive "jingle, jangle" sound of McGuinn and the Byrds.

Structurally, the song is different than most popular songs because it begins with the chorus. Dylan's original song had four verses, of which only the second verse is sung on The Byrds' version. You look at Dylan's original lyrics, and look at how thin the song is that ended up as a Number One record, and you wonder how the heck the song could have worked in such a condensed form. But, hey, if it's summer and the music is good, it doesn't matter much what the words are. And that's rock and roll.

But if you want words . . . here they are from the master, the final verse of Dylan's song.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.


And that's rock and roll, too.

Monday, July 6, 2009

It May be Corny, but It's Better Than Being a Snot



There are plenty of places in the city to soak up some culture -- even though to the folks "out East" the notion that Chicago has any culture at all has been a big hoo-hah for more than a century. As if only a city with broad vowels and double-parked delivery trucks can claim to be the nation's cultural casbah.

I enjoy living in this big city because of the culture that is just a bus ride away and the lack of pretension about it, which is our way of life. The Pritzker Prize Laureate of 1998, Renzo Piano, designed the new addition to Chicago's Art Institute, a world class space that makes everything around it seem even better. Two blocks to the north the Grant Park Symphony plays for free a couple times a week during the summer in the Pritzker Pavilion, a stunning explosion of stainless steel two blocks to the north of the Art Institute that 1989 Pritzker Laureate Frank Gehry designed.

A mile or so down the hard road there are three great places that green grass and sparkling waters surround -- an aquarium, a planetarium, and a museum of natural history. In a half-day you can watch sea otters dip and dive, see the solar system reveal itself, and run around Sue, the biggest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered.

But on some days culture gets in the way of just plain having fun. My father didn't allow my sister and me to read comic books when we were kids, and, although he was a brilliant man, I think that was wrong. All work and no play and all that. How can you appreciate true beauty unless you have a good roll around in the mud once in awhile? How does Romeo know the difference between a snowy white dove and crows without Rosaline, the baseline?

So, when we're tired of thinking and appreciating and maintaining our roles as life long learners, Jill and I take the 151 down to Illinois and transfer to the 66 and walk the considerable length of Navy Pier until we finally plop down at the Beer Garden on the very east end.

It's too noisy to talk, especially when the salsa band with the two trombones is playing like it was yesterday. We just sit and watch the people go past, the never-ending twizzlers of people, all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities. Each person, each couple, each family -- all of them -- have stories to tell. You wonder what they are.

Yesterday a young man in his mid-teens was pushed past us in a wheel chair, his right leg bandaged tightly above the knee, a recent amputee. He looked healthy and content, his family happy and relaxed. What stories do they have to tell about the recent months? A terrifying bout with cancer, ending in celebration? A nightmarish call in the middle of the night about a son maimed in a car crash? In a few seconds the family wheeled its way into the crowd and was gone. The people kept going by, the band playing, the dancers swaying, each person a story, each story part of our story.

An afternoon at the Pier isn't sophisticated . . . there isn't much culture to be gained from it. But the beer is cold, and the stories slide along with a salsa step. And in those stories we read our lives.