31 August 2006

A tavern is a city

"A TAVERN IS A CITY," the journalist recalls, "A city writ small. There was a whorehouse down the street. It became a saga."

Among the many perfect bits of our civic lore is a rat-bag firetrap bar in an undercover investigation, a sting of grifting city inspectors, owned by the Chicago Sun-Times in from August to Halloween of 1977, supervised by the Better government Association, known to state authorities, followed around by "60 Minutes," dubbed the Mirage Watering Hole and Pub, a name as ironic, as serious, as a crooked fire inspector's cigarette. Today it's the Brehon Pub at Wells, Superior. In Friday night's swampy humidity a hundred or so heads, almost all graying or gray, cluster in the adjoining storefront, listening to the stories from almost thirty years ago from a quartet of the crew in a gathering sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Pam Zekman, Zay Smith (quoted above), then-BGA rep Bill Recktenwald and photographer Jim Frost. There's a taco buffet on a covered billiards table. Words, phrases, float up from the close crowd: "investigate"; "kill fee"; "fired" and "some company in Lincolnwood." Patti Smith plays, the unlikely "So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star." But where are the next-gen journos who ought to thrive from this night's sunlight? Among the 79 photos on the bar's wall, there's a clutch from the Mirage, including one of the exterior, where the quartet are so young, dressed 1970s with silly mustaches and the mega-petite Zekman in a black pantsuit and hair redder than flame. They could conquer the world. They opened a bar. They busted pikers, and they busted the system of systemic petty shakedowns, ones overlooked "back in those days and even in these days," Zekman, now a Channel 2 correspondent, says.

In those days... Forget Woodward and Bernstein, here is another form of journalism that twenty-first century corporate media does not countenance, cannot abide. Or, except for Jim Hogue at the Sun-Times, would not abide then. It was offered to the Trib, which worried, "what if someone got hurt at a Tribune-owned bar?" Zekman says. There were six sets of books, and of the eventual site of the four months of shamanic sham, she says, "It was a total dump-" She pauses for effect- "But it was something the Sun-Times could afford. The inspectors came through, they were as corrupt as we were told they were. It was a project, an investigation, a dream assignment and a nightmare assignment. We were here impossible hours, the story could explode at any time."

But Recktenwald, now a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, says that when the 25-part series dropped in January 1978, a five week run, each morning on the El to work, readers had the Sun-Times open, their mouths open, they were "all laughing at the appropriate places, and they all read to the jump! And it damn near won the Pulitzer."

They know they did something good but they won't say they did something great. They'd rather tell a story, this motley crew: crisp, irreverent, funny. So funny even after all the retellings. Classic Chicago. [Originally appeared in a different form in Newcity, 31 August 2006.]

20 August 2006

09 August 2006

The young man walks by himself: after Dos Passos

I have a new portfolio of pictures accompanying a text from John dos Passos' "USA" at Sharkforum.

07 August 2006

I am the Great White Way of the city.

A new portfolio is at Sharkforum, a dozen photos accompanying two short poems, entitled, "I am The Great White Way of the city: after Carl Sandburg."