City Watch: Discovering the Uncommon Chicago

City Watch: Discovering the Uncommon Chicago

by Jon Anderson

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Overview

In forty-five years as one of Chicago's liveliest journalists for Time, Life, and the Chicago Tribune, Jon Anderson has established a reputation for picking up on what someone once called "the beauty of the specific fact." Part "Talk of the Town," part On the Road with Charles Kuralt, Anderson's twice-a-week "City Watch" columns in the Chicago Tribune seek out interesting and unexpected people and places from the everyday life of what the author calls the "most typical American big city." In the process he discovers the joys and triumphs of ordinary people.

Anderson writes with wit and insight about those who find themselves inspired or obsessed with alternative ways of viewing life or getting through the day. Like the man who started with one light pole, then painted all the poles in his southside neighborhood. Or the founder of Cats-Are-Purrsons-Too, a nun who lives with sixty-seven cats. Or the philosopher who, with no financial success, still publishes a newsletter called "The Meaning of Life." After years of hunting down moments of everyday life that have drama and meaning, Anderson offers a book that has curious power, because all of its stories are true.

Drawn from the best of Anderson's columns, City Watch introduces readers to an eclectic mix of social clubs, subcultures, and minor celebrities. From Foraging Friends, a group of penniless ecologists who forage for wild foods in a county forest preserve, to the annual Dumpster Diver fashion show, from the Oakton Elementary School chess team to a group that calls itself Some Chicago Anarchists, readers will discover the characters and events that define Chicago's local color.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780877457527
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 05/28/2001
Edition description: 1
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: (w) x (h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

City Watch Discovering the Uncommon Chicago
By JON ANDERSON
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 Chicago Tribune Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-752-7



Chapter One TOUR THAT THOUGHT IT'S SEEN IT ALL TAKES IN REAL EYE-BOGGLER

"You're in for a wonderful treat," said tour leader Ellen O'Connor, as a chartered bus outside the Ogilvie Transportation Center filled up for the first "Know Your Chicago" outing of the year.

For fifty years, operating under the umbrella of the University of Chicago, such tours have taken civic-minded citizens on backstage visits to everything from the Deep Tunnel project to Cook County Jail where, once, they shared beef stew with prisoners.

The idea was thought up in the late 1940s by Mary Ward Wolkonsky, a doyenne of Chicago society, who had read in her Vassar College alumni magazine about "a class that had taken a trip along the Hudson stopping in major towns to study their government.

"I thought that a similar venture would be important in Chicago," she said in an interview before the bus took off. "Our aim was to appeal to educated women, offering information that would enhance whatever they were doing. Or encourage them to get going at something."

Along with speakers ranging from social activist Saul Alinsky to photographer Victor Skrebneski, many of the two hundred tours so far have delved into the underside of the city and suburbs.

"We've been through three steel mills, almost every city organization, City Hall, schools, social agencies, companies, plants, most of the courts, sewage disposal operations and water filtration plants," Wolkonsky recalled. "We've had on lots of hard hats."

This year, however, planners scheduled a rather more upbeat opener, to celebrate not only surviving fifty years but doing well, with a mailing list that now exceeds twenty-five hundred.

It was also something of an exploration of what happens, in the Chicago area, if one plays one's cards exactly right and makes a gigantic pile of money. Like, what then?

"I've been doing this tour for twenty-five years and I thought I'd seen everything," murmured Sheila Kalish, as the bus reached its destination, the private home of a couple whose fortune came from the nut and sesame-bar business. It is rarely open to outsiders and is known as "The Victorian Palace," hidden away on a sixty-one-acre private park amid the rolling fields of Barrington Hills.

They had not, as Al Jolson said when introducing talking pictures, seen anything yet.

Inside the front door, the 150 guests assembled around a grand staircase designed after the main one on the Titanic. Then, they were led into the music room, a twenty-seven thousand-square-foot addition finished in 1992, which includes the largest theater pipe organ ever built, set in front of a replica of the theater curtain of the old Paradise Theater, once a West Side landmark.

"Migod, it's like Balaban & Katz go to Versailles," whispered one visitor, recalling decorating touches favored by the late Chicago movie theater moguls and by France's Louis XIV.

Indeed, throughout the vast palace of a home, which covers a full acre of ground, were columns and frills saved, or copied, from such temples of the cinema as the Regal, the Granada, the Chicago, the Southtown, the United Artists and the Music Box.

Inside, in the main house and in a vast metal box known as the Carousel Building on the other side of the lagoon beyond the dozens of geese at rest on manicured lawns, were hundreds of automatic musical instruments, many of them driven by perforated paper rolls.

"Yes, there are lots of things to see," noted the hostess, Marian Sanfilippo, whose husband, Jasper, built the nut business, amiably greeting a crowd that broke up into four groups to examine everything from the old coin-operated tavern pianos to genuine Tiffany table lamps.

"Extraordinary," said one guest, as a 450-pipe organ, with flashing lights, clacking maracas, a tom-tom and three automated accordions, played "Blue Tango" while a restored carousel whirled next to a glittering two-story art-glass facade titled "Palace of Eden."

So, what's it like, living in a place like this? "Well, after dinner, they often snuggle up by themselves and listen to the organ," said Robert Ridgeway, the palace's in-house instrument curator, noting that the Sanfilippos have no live-in help.

Indeed, others said, the couple are still as straightforward and friendly as they were thirty years ago when they lived in a small house in Niles. That was when Jaspar Sanfilippo began working for a nut firm started by his father, an immigrant from Sicily.

After his father died, Sanfilippo, who was turned on to the possibilities of mechanization as a youth after viewing nickelodeon pianos in a North Side restaurant, built the company into the world's second-largest processor and distributor of nuts and sesame-seed bars. Sales of John B. Sanfilippo & Son, Inc., products rose from $320,000 in 1963 to over $300 million last year.

The change in fortune also gave Sanfilippo the chance, after the company went public in 1991, to indulge in his favorite hobby, collecting automatic music instruments. His collection now is valued at $75 million.

"This was certainly more fun than the morgue," Wolkonsky suggested later, summing up the buzz about the place. Though the home is not open to the public, its gates do swing wide for about thirty charity fundraisers each year. To get their group in, "Know Your Chicago" board members pulled strings, of which they have plenty.

Others, on the bus back into town, were wondering how to wangle another invitation-when a planned private railroad around the grounds is completed.

September 18, 1998

Chapter Two SAVING GRACE OF A LONELY LIFE

When it comes to saving things, it is normal and prudent, psychiatrists assure us, to put aside small objects for later use, an occupation that often involves string, rubber bands, newspapers, wrapping paper, nails and a stack of National Geographic magazines for rainy day reading about Borneo.

On the other hand, some people just love clutter.

John Steinbeck did.

In Travels with Charley, he wrote lovingly about his garage "full of broken bits and pieces," which he kept that way so that if a toilet or motor or lawnmower broke down he could find a part to fix it. A person with a similar cast of mind was the late Elizabeth Cheney of Oak Park. She filled so much of her home with her possessions-from Oriental antiques to used cigarette packages carefully folded into brown paper bags-that two major auctions will be needed this spring just to dispose of the good stuff.

Her three-story mansion at 220 North Euclid Avenue was packed with furniture, paintings, silver, porcelain, boxes, mounds of rugs, 150 quilts, letters, postcards, yellowed newspapers and 100,000 books. The best things-among them, $250,000 worth of antique silver-are going to gavel, in two auction sales.

But there have been surprises as packers moved through rooms of the elegant old house in recent weeks. They found, for example, stacks of Oak Park newspapers, Chicago magazines, pre-World War II newspapers, enough New Yorkers to build a pillar of fiction a dozen feet high and, neatly packed, hundreds of empty cartons of instant breakfast, Cheney's major sustenance in the years before her death on September 20, 1985.

"She saved everything. I don't know if she ever threw anything away," says Leslie Hindman, whose staff of auctioneers, at 225 West Ohio Street, has been preparing the goods for sale. Was this another case of an obsession identified in the archives of Chicago's Institute for Psychoanalysis as "collector's mania," a compulsive need some people have to set up strange warehouses? Actually, no.

Unlike New York's wealthy Collyer brothers, whom police found lodged in a filthy Fifth Avenue mansion with fourteen pianos, two organs, toys, bicycles, empty bottles, cans, three tons of newspapers and a partly dismantled Model-T Ford, Cheney was cheerful, neat, often generous and meticulously organized. To keep track of her possessions, she invented her own inventory system, using cards with brief descriptions, code numbers, purchase prices and insurance estimates. She had, in the Victorian sense, a place for everything, with everything in its place. She just kept more than most people do, as was seen on recent tour of her home, a three-story building with a grand staircase, elegant ballroom and, in the major bathrooms, fireplaces.

Her kitchen bookcases, for example, contained five hundred cookbooks, with enough recipes to feed a gourmet army. On a living room mantel were a dozen miniature rooms by Narcissa Thorne whose work also fills much of a room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hats from legendary Chicago milliner Bes-Ben filled a large closet upstairs. Her attic once contained three hundred rugs, obtained by her uncle when he helped out an Oriental rug company during the Depression.

Born in Chicago in 1902, Elizabeth Cheney was the only child of William Cheney Jr., whose father, a train engineer, drove the last locomotive out of Chicago before the Great Chicago Fire engulfed the railroad yards, and Florence Hooker Cheney, whose father founded a Chicago glass and paint company. When she was three, her mother died. Her father, undone by the loss, put her in a private school and seldom saw her.

"She had a very sad childhood," says Steffi Podmanik, her housekeeper. "That's why she was the way she was." Early years, friends agree, were not easy. She boarded with two teachers who set her to "doing the dirty work," cleaning stoves and the kitchen. Later, for twenty years, she worked in the book department at Carson Pirie Scott & Company, saving pennies for the movies by walking from El stations instead of buying bus transfers.

Her nearest relatives, with whom she often stayed, were her uncle and aunt, Andrew and Mary Dole, in Oak Park. A philanthropist and major donor to George Williams College, Chicago Theological Seminary and the Oak Park library system, Andrew Dole died in 1940. Mary Dole died, at age eighty, in 1949, leaving the family mansion to niece Elizabeth, then forty-seven. Following in her aunt's directions, Elizabeth added to the collections of art, books and antiques, became a regular in Loop silver departments and well-known in antique circles in New York and London.

"Dealers from all over remember her really well," Hindman says. "We get calls all the time saying, for example, 'I once sold her a covered soup tureen. Are you selling that?'" The answer, in most cases, is yes. The upcoming auctions will include a George iii soup tureen worth, perhaps, twenty thousand dollars, as well as four hundred lots of jewelry, Chinese snuff boxes and several cases of good port from the basement. The Cheney home, given to the Park District of Oak Park under a life-lease agreement in 1975, probably will be restored and opened to tours and small receptions.

Besides her things, friends also remember an interested, compassionate woman, an avid reader and benefactor of many interests, including the White House, to which she made donations of fine china. "She loved to do things for people," says Mary McMenamin, a longtime friend. "She loved to take them out to eat, buy them clothes, give them books." Nor was she without a sense of humor.

Two years ago, for example, during the Christmas shopping season, she took two pals downtown to Neiman-Marcus for lunch, found she couldn't hear over a tinkling pianist, waved over a waiter and told him: "Tell that fellow I'll give him ten dollars to have a long drink or get lost for a while." Moments later, the waiter returned, bowed politely and said: "Madam, the piano player accepts." The rest of lunch, McMenamin recalls, was "lots of fun."

April 20, 1986

Chapter Three POET FINDS PAST JOB MAID TO ORDER

Much later, long after she was fired, when poet Lisa Alvarado was asked what she remembered most about her six months as a maid on Chicago's Gold Coast, she always began with the closets.

For starters, she'd never seen ones that big. The two off the master bedroom, one for "him," one for "her," were larger than many apartments she had known. "Can you organize a walk-in closet?" she was asked, at her hiring interview. She could. She got the job.

Later, as a poet, Alvarado was to think about the meaning of closets. About "skeletons in the closet." About "coming out of the closet." About "Fibber McGee's closet," a reference to an old radio gag about a cluttered storage area whose opening always led to major clatter.

As a maid, her duties were, to put it mildly, anti-McGee.

The goal was perfect order-for the Richard Tyler cocktail gowns, the Gucci and Armani outfits, the rows of Manolo Blahnik shoes, the La Perla lace-edged undies. Everything was top drawer, sorted according to color, category and the advice of a specialist from New York.

"She had a person fly in to pull outfits, lay them out and shoot photos. She would keep files, like 'Here is the beige Gucci outfit, these are the right accessories,'" Alvarado said, recalling a world above going to stores. Clothing came on the arms of fashion consultants, such as "the Donna Karan person arriving with a load of cashmere to look at."

What was needed, Alvarado was told, was a person who understood the nuances of dusting lacquered furniture, of cleaning modern art, of scrubbing marble tubs, of taking care to wash and dry a dog's paws after outings to protect the all-white carpets.

So, how did a self-professed "lifelong scribbler" from Albany Park, with a growing reputation as a poet and a performance artist, the winner of grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, get into a spot like this?

"A poem begins with a lump in the throat," Robert Frost once suggested.

For Alvarado, it was more like hunger pangs.

Two years ago, after blowing her savings on a writing trip to Mexico, Alvarado answered a want ad in the Tribune placed by a head-hunting firm. The client was a Gold Coast family whose identity Alvarado agreed, at the time of her hiring, never to reveal.

Her previous employments had included factory jobs, union organizing, health-care advocacy, several stints as a psychiatric orderly at Mt. Sinai Hospital Medical Center-and cleaning.

It was only after she left the Gold Coast that she considered her experiences as poetry, specifically The Housekeeper's Diary, now out from La Onda Negra Press, a four-year-old local publishing enterprise "devoted to expanding markets for women writers of color."

The book, with images by Robin Barcus, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute, is available at Women and Children First, a bookstore in Andersonville.

Many of Alvarado's poems, with titles ranging from "Hand Laundry" and "Taking Instructions" to "Sons of the Very Rich" and "Home," have to do with her feelings of strangeness in a place where she dealt with the most private aspects of a family's life, from sexual habits to ways of sharing food, but felt herself invisible:

You will not think of me. I am a whisper a shadow. Silently, I slip in and out of rooms bearing gifts you only see as a meal.

Not easily summarized, the poems deal with "panties thin as a lie." And what to make of "someone who buys birthday presents with trust fund money, by phone, and pays someone else to wrap and deliver them." The isolation of the wealthy. And how "with Tilex, (the maid becomes) police and conjurer. I protect the pristine. I make evidence disappear."

"Diary" also gives Alvarado a ranking place in a spreading form of literature. Call it dust-and-tell. It's a genre started by palace help in London, lately including Wendy Berry, who served for eight years as housekeeper to Prince Charles. She got three hundred thousand dollars for revealing that Princess Diana had, on certain distraught occasions, shouted obscenities at Prince Charles, smashed teacups "and retreated to the loo to vomit after lunch."

Thus far, there have been no big bucks for poet Alvarado, who leaves this week to polish her skills, working toward a master of fine arts degree at Vermont College.

Indeed, she laments that, before she lost her Gold Coast job after a mixup involving a misplaced key to the country house, she was making thirty thousand dollars a year-"the best-paying job I ever had."

September 9, 1999

(Continues...)



Excerpted from City Watch by JON ANDERSON Copyright © 2001 by Chicago Tribune Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Introduction....................xi
SPECIAL PLACES Tour That Thought It's Seen It All Takes in Real Eye-Boggler....................3
Saving Grace of a Lonely Life....................7
Poet Finds Past Job Maid to Order....................10
Wedgwood Society Dreams Still on the Table....................14
Gents (and Ladies) in White Reclaim Turf after Dry Spell....................17
Limousines: Not Just for the Rich....................20
CHICAGO PASSIONS AND STYLES "Wild Ones" Say It Simply Isn't So....................25
Clothes Found in Rubbish Don't Have to Look Trashy....................28
Five Guys in Their Forties Sing about, Well, Guys in Their Forties....................31
Foraging Friends Savor Tastes of Great Outdoors....................34
At Least Once a Month, Anarchists Reign at Meeting....................37
Courting Laughs....................40
Finding the Humor in Haggis....................46
Club Dispenses Plenty of Bon Mots....................49
"Deee-fense! Deee-fense!"....................52
Laundromats Take Clean to New Extremes....................56
ALL THE NEW THINKING ABOUT THE ARTS Portrait of the Artist-White Coats, but No Chisels....................61
Betting on Butter, Art Gallery Spreads It on Thick....................65
Faux Ethnic Dishes Feed Students' Minds....................68
Working-Class Artists Do a Little PR....................71
The Views from the Boat....................74
Fragments Gain New Life in Hands of Mosaic Artist....................79
Mittens Knit a Tribute to the 43 Forgotten....................82
Class Views Circus as Art....................85
StringFever....................88
For the CSO, It's Mahler Onstage and Ping-Pong Backstage....................93
CHICAGO: LAND OF BOOKS AND WRITERS Hometown Hug for Hemingway....................99
Irish Author's Fans Gather to Celebrate Ulysses, Other Tales....................103
Brooker Winners Don't Go by the Book When Collecting....................106
Where Old Books Go to Be Read Again....................109
A Sanctuary Where Writers Can Think and Be Creative....................112
He Chooses His Words Wisely....................117
LEADERS OF THE GREAT PARADES A Mogul Talks about His Family Dynasty....................121
Czechs and Balances....................128
Lady Thatcher Sets Down Her Record....................132
"Am I Happy? Yes, I'm Happy!"....................137
Auctioneer to Host the Last Bash at Butler's Digs....................143
CHICAGO LIFESTYLES OF THE NOT-SO-RICH, NOT-SO-FAMOUS Cicero Cops on Crash Course....................151
Can't Go Home Again? Try the Bus....................154
Paintings Tell Tales of Beverly Life....................157
Hopes Blossom in North Lawndale....................160
Austin Village Shows No Place Like Home....................163
A Hyde Park Denizen Comes of Age....................166
New Drive for South Side Y....................169
Memories of Titanic Unsinkable....................173
Light Pole Painter Has a True Brush with Fame....................178
The Ultimate Out-of-Towners....................181
River's Friends Go Where Only Most Hardy Dare....................186
LOCAL TACTICS IN THE RESTLESS SEARCH FOR LOVE Shrinks in Love....................191
One Language Needs No Translation....................195
Small Delights on the Zephyr....................198
In Touch with Sex....................201
Algren Affair to Remember Lives Again....................207
Porn Star Missy Is Graphic about Safe Sex....................210
Marriage an Open Book for Loggins, Wife....................213
OH, TO BE A FISH (OR CAT) IN CHICAGO Finned Friends Cheer Lonely Guests....................219
Animal Lovers Ferret Out a Unique Halfway House....................222
268 Paws Tug at Her Heartstrings....................225
PAWS Puts Furry Faces in the Adoption Market....................228
Gold Coast Pays Tribute to Its Storied Vet....................231
THE MEANING OF LIFE? DON'T ASK Suds, Sanctuary Are Match Made in Heaven....................237
A Generation Tries to Remember ... Something or Other....................240
Song Helps Rekindle Spark in Alzheimer's Patients....................244
Near-Death Experiences Share Common Thread....................248
The Meaning of Life? Don't Ask....................251

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