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Feature Fri Feb 06 2015

Goethe, Floyd, Rahm & Me

This is a story of life, love, and property damage. It is a story involving crystallized water, piled some 19 inches deep. The story forces us to confront greed, manipulation, logistics, and physics. The characters include the legendary and the ordinary, from Rahm Emanuel to a bus driver whose name we'll likely never know.

On Tuesday nights, the Chicago Media Bowling League takes to the lanes at the legendary Fireside Bowl. Gapers Block fields a team in the league, and I happen to be on the team. The main reason I am on the team is because I have my own ball. His name is Floyd.

Yes, this is a story about a bowling ball, and yes, this is also a story about a mayoral election. First, though, this is a story about a city and a snowstorm.


The weekend of February 1-3, 2015, Chicago was hit by over 19 inches of snow. It is now considered the fifth-largest recorded snow storm in the city's history. Interestingly, all five of those storms have occurred in mayoral election years: 1967, 1979, 1999, 2011, 2015.

The 1979 blizzard wasn't the biggest, but it's arguably the most famous. In part this is because that winter had the most total snowfall on record. But it is famous largely because of its impact on the mayoral election that year.

The story has been repeated endlessly. Michael Bilandic, who inherited the mayor's chair upon the death of Richard J. Daley, was personally blamed for the city's perceived inability to respond properly to the blizzard. Chicago still used partisan elections then, and that February, Jane Byrne narrowly won the Democratic primary with 51 percent of the vote. Since that time, the quintessential question in considering the relative merits of a mayor is not one of whether the person can balance the budget, or boost jobs, or reduce crime. The quintessential question is: Can he get the streets plowed?


My family is a bowling family. My uncle is a professional bowler. My cousin, in turn, is quite a bowler in his own right. Even my grandmother had her own ball.

One particular summer, my cousin and I were on a Thursday afternoon league team together, at Don Carter Lanes in Rockford. A quarter could get you a hot dog, or, if you preferred, an inning in the pseudo-pinball baseball game which would reward runs scored with baseball cards. For us, the gilded age was not some historical reference point, but rather the time when instead of getting a 1992 Topps Paul Assenmacher card, you might get a 1992 Topps Gold Paul Assenmacher card.

floyd bowling ballThe last day of the league, after a throw of mine, a pin somehow got trapped in the ball return. My old, light ball was badly gouged, and had to be discarded. That ball was a shade of burgundy-meets-maroon that basically ceased to be produced after 1984, and ceased to exist at all when the last Mercury Zephyr got junked.

Since the pin ruined my ball, the alley's pro show gave me a new urethane ball. I was 16 at the time. I'm not really sure why, but I was really into Pink Floyd's Animals at the time, especially the song "Pigs (Three Different Ones)." I understood that the whole thing was Roger Waters channeling George Orwell, but beyond that, I had little idea what he was getting at, and I didn't much care. It all seemed very... important. Thus, inscribed upon the ball: Floyd. In white, though. I couldn't get it in pink. And I did ask.


Can he get the streets plowed? The question is absurd on multiple levels. First, the question presupposes that the mayor is a man. But that presupposition is based on the inherent imagery of the question. It conjures a vision of Richard Daley -- whichever Richard Daley you like -- personally driving a snow plow, or at the very least sitting in a control room somewhere directing where the plows will go. Lest we think this is imagined imagery, consider Rahm Emanuel's appearance before the media on the Tuesday morning following the snowstorm. As the Tribune reported it:

The mayor normally arrives for such public events impeccably attired in bespoke suits but turned up at the city's 911 center for the Monday snow update wearing jeans, boots and a sweater with the sleeves literally rolled up.

Let's set aside for the moment that neither I nor anyone I know has ever rolled up the sleeves of a sweater for anything short of washing dishes. Why wouldn't the mayor show up like this? When the gods hammer you with a half-meter of snow, you don't stride out to face the press sporting your best Armani. Instead, you have to demonstrate that you're a working man. You have to portray the idea that you're out there physically combating the snow yourself. You have to show who's wearing the pants. And if we know one thing as a city, it's that Rahm tiene pantalones.

Can he get the streets plowed? The deeper one dives into the question, the more blatantly sexist the undertones. Bilandic was widely blamed for the city's failure to handle the snow -- among other things -- but still got 49 percent of the vote. It took the most extreme of political circumstances, and the narrowest of margins, for Chicago to elect a woman. Illinois still hasn't elected a female governor. The United States still hasn't elected a female president. Should we really be so surprised?


The Fireside Bowl is on Fullerton, between Rockwell and California. The Fireside has a long, complicated history, reflecting the changing demographics of its particular part of Logan Square. But we need not dwell upon that history here. Let's just say that if you want to see your ball inexplicably hop a split-second before impact with the 6 pin on lane 5, all while sipping on a Classy Alfred, this is the alley for you. (But the bartender won't actually know what a Classy Alfred is. You'll have to order a Birddog Blackberry Whiskey with ginger ale. And you should. Trust me.)

fireside bowl chicago
Chicago Media Bowling League. Photo by Andrew Huff

League games at the Fireside start at 7:30. I live in Jefferson Park. It's difficult to leave work in the Loop, get home, and double back. I could just take the Blue Line all around... but then I wouldn't have Floyd with me. So I handle the situation by driving to the vicinity of the Fireside in the morning and parking there, walking to the California stop, then after work walking back to the car, gathering Floyd, and entering the bowling alley.

This is how I came to be on Fullerton, between Rockwell and California, on Tuesday morning, about when Rahm Emanuel gave his press conference with his sweater sleeves rolled up. Usually parking on Fullerton is easy. This day, two days after the fifth-largest snow storm in Chicago history, it was not. I had to double around a lot, down unplowed back streets. Finally, at one point, deciding to get back to Milwaukee and California and try something else, I turned onto southbound Rockwell.

And there I got trapped. It wasn't that my car was stuck in the snow. Instead, there was a line of nine cars ahead of me on Rockwell. At the head of the line was a school bus, stopped outside of Goethe Elementary. Nobody in any of the cars seemed to know what was going on.


There is an ecological concept which holds that a forest is a "dynamic living entity" -- in short, that the living organisms within a forest, conceived as a whole, have collective properties which themselves tend to meet the standard definitions of life. One interesting aspect of the forest as a dynamic living entity is that a fire, while it may destroy much of what is in the forest, can actually lead to a vibrant rebirth of the forest as a whole.

A fire that destroyed much of what was standing, and a rebuilding far greater than before? That sounds like Chicago.

In Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren wrote:

It isn't hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet. Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too.

For Algren, the city is much the same kind of dynamic living entity as a forest. He goes further, though, and anthropomorphizes Chicago. The title is meant to be taken literally: the city itself is on the make. It not only has a life of its own, but a temperament, and you are well advised not to run afoul of that temperament.

Also, the city is no mere mechanism. The elder Mayor Daley famously declared Chicago "The City That Works," but nobody understood better than he that levers and pulleys are insufficient to "make it work." A mayor, in particular, must engage in a relationship with the city. And for the truly successful mayors, that relationship will take the form of nothing short of a romance.

Do you know the city? Do you know its quirks? Do you love its buildings? Do you love its streets? These are the subtexts to that quintessential question. It is not simply a matter of mechanics. Do you love the city enough to be able to take care of it properly? And to answer that question properly -- to love the city enough to be able to get its streets plowed -- you damn well better love those alleys too.

Did the Mayors Daley love this city? Most definitely. There were caveats, of course. For Richard J. Daley, racism, provincialism, and police riots were all along for the ride. For Richard M. Daley, by the end, you couldn't help but shake the feeling that he had managed to define Chicago much more narrowly than the city limits. But for both men, the extremes of excesses were not enough to obfuscate the obvious civic pride they held. They were not just from Chicago, they were of Chicago. What could possibly be wrong with nepotism, when the city itself is family?

The Daleys were both born here. So too was Jane Byrne. And Harold Washington. And Michael Bilandic, and Martin Kennelly, and Edward Kelly. You have to go all the way back to Anton Cermak to find an elected mayor who wasn't a lifelong Chicagoan.

Rahm Emanuel was born here too. But his family moved to the north suburbs when he was young. Chicago was not where he cut his teeth. Does it matter? Does it make him any less of the city? Does he love the city? Is he even capable of doing so?


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is generally considered the foremost German man of letters. As a large German immigrant population settled in Chicago in the 19th century, Goethe was perhaps the preeminent exemplar of high German culture. And so there is a Goethe Street in Gold Coast, an impressive statue dedicated to Goethe at the very top of Lincoln Park, a German cultural institute named after Goethe in the Loop, and, in Logan Square, Goethe Elementary School, built in the 1890s.

Rockwell is one-way south of Fullerton to Milwaukee. Goethe Elementary is on the right side of the street. It is hardly a German neighborhood today. It is instead a neighborhood school in the middle of a Puerto Rican area in the middle of a hipster area in the middle of a gentrifying area. One can only guess at what Goethe might have said about it. But one need not guess at what Algren might have said. The neighborhood is the essence of the great contradictions arguably inherent to the fiber of Chicago.

The bus was stopped alongside the school. With no explanation at hand for what was going on, I simply got out of the car and trudged through the slush on the street. One guy a few cars ahead claimed that the driver was refusing to move until somebody shoveled a path for the kids, a claim which seemed dubious, except that there were two people with shovels and they didn't seem to be trying to free the bus from being stuck.

The guy in the car had it partially right. The bus driver was indeed refusing to move. But the issue was different. To the left of the bus, a number of cars were parked. Ahead and to the right, a couple of construction barriers -- those orange and white striped jobs with a single light on top -- were positioned so as to take up part of the street. Why? You couldn't tell, because whatever what cordoned off was buried by the snow.

It seems that a previous bus, trying to navigate the slush between the parked cars and barriers, had slightly sideswiped a gray Fiat at the front of the line of parked cars. The bus driver was refusing to move for fear that she too would hit the same car. A guy with a shovel informed me that the police had been called, and Falcon, the bus company, had been called, but she still wouldn't move.


Can he get the streets plowed? It doesn't matter if the masses are or aren't realistic about things like overtime and number of plows and anything like that. The question is so embedded in the collective culture of the city that the question generally degrades to a simpler one: Is my street plowed? And I'm convinced that, deep down, a lot of people don't actually want their streets to be plowed, because they want to be mad at somebody for something which they know absolutely isn't their own fault.

Here's the thing about Rahm Emanuel: nobody actually seems to like the man. He's a voracious fundraiser, and he's got a reputation as someone who can "get things done." But he's not mayor because of any affinity the voters hold for him. I can't tell you how many times in 2011 I heard some variation on the argument, "Well, I know he's an asshole, but I think Chicago might need an asshole as a mayor."

Is that how people felt about Richie Daley too? It had started to get to that point. When the parade was held for the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the mayor was introduced, and the boos rained down upon him. It's true that a lot of things weren't going well for Daley by the time he announced he wouldn't seek reelection in 2011: his wife's poor health, the embarrassing failure to bring the Olympics to Chicago and more. But the boos at the parade hurt the man. The parade was a celebration of Chicago. And Chicago, manifested as it rarely could through hundreds of thousands of people, was booing.

If that were to happen to Rahm Emanuel, would it hurt him the same way? Or would his response be to simply dial up another poll to make sure that even if the people hated him, he could still get them to vote for him anyway?

Remember, this is the same man who, in 2005, when chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, making him perhaps the top Democratic strategist in the country, offered in regards to the war in Iraq, "At the right time we will have a position."

There was no compassion there, only calculation. And this has been his modus operandi throughout his political career. But we must at least concede that he is a shrewd calculator, mustn't we? After all, look where he's at. If he's the smartest guy in the room, then doesn't that blunt that quintessential question? Isn't it easy to fall back on the idea that of course he did his best to get the streets plowed and it's not like anyone else could have done any better?

But those subtexts creep back in. The scene played out in front of a school named for Goethe, but the answers still come from Algren. Do you know the city? Do you know its quirks? Do you love the city enough to be able to take care of it properly?

Rahm Emanuel's overarching concern, though, has never been the city or its people. It's always simply been to win. He may well long for the kind of relationship with the city some of his predecessors had, but that connection simply is not there.

For Rahm, taking care of the city is not an act of love, but rather a video game wrought real. Why bother with SimCity when you can play with the real thing? Along the way, score all the points you possibly can, according to whatever scoring rules are concocted out of thin air by all of your good buddies who also see cities as toys and states as experiments.

Both Daleys, in their times, were the most powerful mayors in the entire country. To the casual observer, Rahm Emanuel is simply following their leads. But there is a critical element missing. Real power comes not from fear, but from love. The Machine worked not simply because it was well-oiled, but because it was internally revered, and the machinations were not simply mechanical but indeed far more personal than the title suggests.

Barricades outside a school, ordered by whom? A significant street through a neighborhood, unplowed after all that time? A bus driver, working for an outsourced firm, clearly afraid of losing her job for hitting a car? Ten, 15, 20 minutes gone by, and no police to help straighten the situation out?

This sort of fiasco doesn't happen in a city where the mayor is truly taking care of things.


[Kitchen. JUNE is at the sink. WALLY enters, seeming slightly exasperated. BEAVER follows with his bowed slightly, looking unhappy.]

WALLY: Man, Beav, you radiate cold shafts of broken glass.

JUNE: Oh, Wally, can't you Goethe on the Beaver?


Finally, while walking back to my car, the owner of the Fiat arrived, or at least the keys to the Fiat arrived, and it was driven out of the potential path of the bus. The bus driver cleared the school, and the rest of us slowly exited the neighborhood. A few minutes later, after having driven around some more, I found a newly opened spot on Fullerton, just two blocks from the Fireside. I got out of the car and walked to the Blue Line to get to my office. Floyd waited for me there.

After work, I went back to the car and fetched Floyd. We were on lanes 1 and 2. The night started spectacularly -- a strike followed by a spare. And everything fell apart from there.

I bowled my worst series of the season, a pitiful 345. Gapers Block won the first game, but lost the next two and with it the match to DNAinfo.

Lately, I've been trying to use spin properly. Before Floyd came around, I never used spin. And after that summer league 22 years ago, Floyd hardly got any use at all. But bowling is like so many other things. You can merely do it well, or you can do it right.

I've loathed Rahm Emanuel for as long as I've known who he is. But even through that loathing, even with such diamterically opposed visions of politics, I've always kind of been plagued by that "tough guy" idea, that on some level, we've needed an asshole to be in charge. I feel I can tackle most political questions head on, but I've always kind of deflected that one, because an answer of "love not war" just never seemed sufficient. It's not that I believed that we needed a jerk running the show. It's just that I've always taken "love not war" as more of an article of faith, something true because it has to be true, not because I could really explain it.

But then, on a cold Tuesday morning on Rockwell Avenue, sitting in my car outside Goethe Elementary, with my bowling ball Floyd sitting next to me, thinking about Rahm Emanuel and getting the streets plowed, it all started to come into focus:

It all must start with loving the city, alleys and all. For all of the bad things one might say about the Daleys, Chicago was family to them. The tough guy stuff, yeah, that was pretty helpful for consolidating power. But whatever other stunts they were pulling, there was at least always that little glimmer of love for their city. And that glimmer mattered.

For Rahm Emanuel, I don't think that glimmer is there. He can roll up his sweater sleeves all he wants. I know what he really is. And Floyd knows too:

Ha ha, charade you are.

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