Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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You know you're walking into a rough neighborhood in Chicago when you start to notice all the scratch-off lottery tickets laying curled up on the sidewalk. Like little discarded oracles that disappointed the supplicant, lottery tickets are the most tangible way to deal in hope.

As I paid for my drink at Charlie's, a West Side tavern, a thin, older guy with a steely gray mustache crooked an eyebrow at the wad of bills I pulled out.

"Big money man," he said. He asked me what my racket was, and I told him.

"Eh. Politics. You know who gets into politics? People too lazy to run an honest business. Or they don't have a head for numbers."

"Is that right?" I answered, admittedly annoyed. "And what, the guys who shut down the Brach's plant and kicked all those people out on the street -- they were the College of Cardinals?"

He explained that over the last thirty years he had built a respectable business doing home repairs, and that everybody in the neighborhood knew him and trusted him to do good work for reasonable prices -- and in that way he had chased "a million punks," competitors, out of the neighborhood and made a good living. "Ask anybody around here about me," he said, "and they'll say, 'He's been working in this neighborhood since Moses wore short pants.'"

"Well, God bless -- but the world needs ditch diggers, too. So ditch diggers deserve respect, don't they?"

He explained to me, patiently, that politicians were like entrepreneurs, too, except unlike men who built a business from scratch, cut tough but honest deals, and provided for their families, politicians preyed on people's desires and hopes and used their hard-earned tax dollars to hand out "just enough favors to keep 'em around -- but not so much that they become useless. Their racket is keeping people hoping forever."

"So how are they different from any business that gives people what they want?"

"They're like dope dealers, or the pimps. They use government to get people hooked. They get people hooked on goodies, they poison 'em, make 'em lazy. They lead people into the desert and then they stand there like Moses and promise to lead 'em out."

By this time we were out in the street, where a light drizzle made the chilly night frigid, and he nodded up the block. "Go up to North Avenue. You'll see 20 churches before you see a shop. Because the politicians know the quickest way to get people hooked is through God. So they started handing out church buildings to every high school dropout who could quote one verse."

"Well, then they're entrepreneurs. But at least they deal in, you know, the public good."

He shrugged. Clearly the booze was catching up with him. "They don't want people to work. They'll think up a million ways to keep people relying on the government before they suggest people get out on their own and work. Man, Chicago was built by entrepreneurs. That's why it'll be around forever. You know, until the end of the times. Some went into business, the others into politics. Maybe they were both crooked -- but the most crooked went into politics. The ones that didn't become gangsters."

"At least we got entrepreneurs," I offered by way of a joke, "You ever been to Detroit?"

"Yeah," he replied, "That -- that's why Chicago's gonna be the, uh, you know. Forever City."

Maybe it was the cold, but I wasn't in the mood to be lectured. "A politician can be crooked, but at least if he's caught they'll haul his ass away. From what I see, being crooked in business is the best way to get rich."

We parted ways at that, but that phrase, "Forever City," stayed with me, kicking around my head as I walked down Central to my car parked around the corner on Haddon and Pine. Was he right? Did our political entrepreneurs prey on people the way dope dealers and pimps exploited our basest desires? While our captains of industry provide real goods and services, do we let ourselves be fooled by hope merchants? I thought of a woman I'd spoken to earlier that day, who lived in K-Town down on Gladys Avenue. She was concerned because she'd heard a rumor that Goldblatt Elementary was going to be closed down soon. She explained that as a Certified Nursing Assistant at a suburban complex for disabled kids, she didn't make enough money to move anywhere with a decent school, but she cared about the kids too much to leave. Her grandkids loved Goldblatt. I suggested she call her alderman.

"Forget that," she said, wary, but with a glimmer of hope. "I'm going to write a letter to Oprah."

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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