The Chicago Reader recently celebrated its 50th annivesary--and some of those years were the best years of my life

The Chicago Reader recently celebrated its 50th annivesary--and some of those years were the best years of my life
Newberry Library graphic from its current Chicago Reader anniversary exhibit

The last piece I wrote for the Chicago Reader was in July, 2008. I’d run into Reverend Al Sharpton getting a shoe shine on Chicago Avenue. I think I complimented him regarding a wisecrack he’d recently made on MSNBC, when he was asked why dejected Blacks didn’t just become Republicans; and he said, “If you have a fight with your wife, you don’t go into the street and just pick up another woman.”

I’ve never been able to find that story online–nor the hard copy in my house or the draft in an old computer or in my mother’s closet where she now has everything I ever wrote stacked up. But a letter to the editor about it is on the Reader website, written by a guy who had his own experience running into Reverend Al.

Speaking of my mother saving my writing, when I ventured out to write a story for the Reader about Anna Quindlen 30 years ago, who was at a bookstore signing books, I spotted my mother in line waiting to get one signed–and I overheard my mom tell Quindlen gushingly that she was her favorite writer and that she saved all her columns in a box to preserve them.

I hid until my mother left and then I told Quindlen that it was my mother who said that. I said I was sort of jealous; I thought I was my mother’s favorite writer–“she keeps all my stories under her bed,” I said. (Which she did before stacking them in the closet.)

And Quindlen said, “My father stashes all my stories under his bed.”

When I turned in the Quindlen story, I included that anecdote at the end. Later that nigh the phone rang with a question from then-editor Mike Lenehan.

(Back then, there was no email and hard copy had to arrive at the Reader office in River North on Monday–I lived nearby and walked over there on Monday morning–and the editing was done on Monday night. And sometimes into the wee hours of the morning–before the typesetting and printing happened that brought the paper to the street on Thursday.)

Lenehan asked if that anecdote had been scratched out by me or the lower-rung editor who’d passed it to him for the final edit. I didn’t do that, I told him.

“Well, I’m putting it back in,” he said.

The same thing happened on another Monday night when he called to ask me who scratched out parts of the ending of a piece I wrote about George Solti, about his last night conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–before he retired. She did, I told him. “Well, I’m putting it back in,” he said.

And that story went on to win a Peter Lisagor Award–my first one–the only award that the late Mike Royko said he ever cared that he won. “The Pulitzer is fixed,” he said. He’d won that, too.

I beat the Reader movie critic that year–as well as an art critic for Chicago Magazine, who were both finalists in the category. And he glared at me at the after-party at the bar we all went to to celebrate the winners. I didn’t blame him.

When the Reader turned 25, there was a big party at some unusual place. And I had a great time, and mentioned that to Alison True at the party, who had by then become the editor. She mentioned how odd it was that all of us loner writers were able to come together in one place and enjoy themselves. I knew exactly what she meant.

The story I had in the Reader the week of that party was about a controversial federal judge who was a friend of mine, and who suddenly decided to retire. It was a very big story and I had a real scoop. I knew him very well and I had a birds-eye view of what went on in real time as it was happening. And that story won an award, too–the Herman Kogan Meritorious Achievement Award from the Chicago Bar Association. (And was a finalist in the Lisagors that year, too–but didn’t win.)

On the night of the Reader 25th anniversary party, my fiend Vicki Quade, a renowned writer and playwright gave me a compliment I’ll never forget: “Your piece about the judge was just like [the movie] ‘Pulp Fiction.'”

I’m still walking on air.

In honor of the week of the 25th anniversary itself, all the writers were asked to write stories about something to do with the number 25. My friend Rose Spinelli and I had a fun idea–we’d board the #25 bus on Cermak; and she’d sit on one side and I’d sit on the other during the whole route and we’d write twin stories, to be published side by side. Alison True didn’t like the result. And sent us back to the drawing board.

I was a City of Chicago prosecutor, as well as a journalist at the time and I had access to all the police star numbers and the names and whereabouts of all the cops. So I called Miguel Flores, Officer 2525 and asked if I could do a ride-a-long. The commander at the Wood Street Station said sure–after all, I was a prosecutor! And I got the story of my life. Everything happened that night, including a murder–and Flores became a lifelong friend.

I had gone to law school in 1991, to embark on a new career. I thought I would never write again. But during the first week, I said one night over dinner, to my husband Paul, “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in these classrooms, what idiotic things these teachers do and say and the way they say it.” I blabbed on and on about the dressing down the students were getting, including me.

He said I better write about it. So I did. For the Reader. And I almost got expelled. But I stuck with my Reader writing after that. And I was also asked to write for the law school paper, The Decisive Utterance. And a few months later, I also became a Sunday columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a position I’d begged for for many years.

(One day, one of my fellow Sunday Tribune columnist Bill Granger came to court with a traffic ticket and I was the prosecutor. Paul and Bill–both deceased now–were at one time best friends and Granger’s wife, my friend Lori, had also become a City prosecutor, which amused Paul because he and Granger in the old days were the crustiest of crustiest Chicago reporters–and both of their wives had become City prosecutors. And Paul said: “First time in history, I bet, that one Tribune columnist prosecuted another.”)

Since the Reader began in October, 1971, I dreamed of my writing being in it. The first story I wrote–sometime in the early ’80s was about a one-legged local boxer. There was no internet in those days and research took time. I remember reading a book by New Yorker boxing writer AJ Liebling–to get my head in the right place.

I was very excited when it came out. And Paul ran into Reader editor Pat Clinton who had done the editing and he told Paul I had “it.” I just needed some seasoning. And I’d be really good. (A few years later, Pulitzer Prize winner, Tom Fitzpatrick, a friend of Paul’s, said the same thing about a story I’d written. Sans the seasoning part.)

The pay wasn’t bad at the Reader so taking time to do interviews, read up on any subject necessary and doing all the other time-consuming things we had to do before the Internet Age were properly compensated. The stories were constructed carefully and could involve just about anything your imagination and curiosity led to. The lesson of the Reader was that everything could be a story if written right. And the biggest story could be a big dud if not written right. That was my greatest lesson from those years. And that technique is hard to teach anyone. (I know, I taught journalism for 10 years.)

So these are some of the stories that come to mind when I reminisce about my days writing for the Reader: A grammar school friend’s mother who always said she was best friends with Bugsy Siegel’s girlfriend, Virginia Hill; two very famous and renowned, but penniless Russian musicians who were invited by the City of Chicago to visit the Jazz Fest, and I was invited to write about them–and they ended up becoming a part of my family for the entire Labor Day Weekend. A Susan Anton visit to the Board of Trade was eye-opening; and a mother who filed a lawsuit after her little boy was sucked into a swimming pool drain and died demanded my attention.

The Virginia Hill story and the swimming pool story, incidentally, were poured over by lawyers and the Hill story–after a little editing because I’d talked about the parents of other nameless grammar school classmates, too– passed muster. But the swimming pool story didn’t. (I wasn’t there–all I had was the mother’s side of the story and her side was all I was interested in writing about. To its credit, the Reader paid me anyway.)

I also wormed my way into late PI attorney Phil Corboy Sr.’s Water Tower condo when Paul was hired to take pictures for a legal newspaper of a party he was giving for Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran. Paul’s pictures were so terrific and fit so well with my wry story-telling–and Corboy wrote us a note after the party welcoming us as part of his “inner circle” going forward; but Dale Cochran, Johnnie’s wife called me to complain. My job was done.

Another story I enjoyed very much was about a one-woman play, written by Dario Fo and performed by a friend of my childhood friend Scott, who called from Los Angeles, where he’d moved and asked me to go see the play on Belmont Avenue and spend time with his friend, the star, who was having a lonely time in Chicago.

So I did. And we went out for dinner after and had a great time. And I took the Red Line home at 3 AM and the train got stuck at Grand Avenue for a long time. And all I could think about was what if I get killed by a terrorist? What will my parents, Paul, my daughter and all my friends and relatives think of me being on the Red Line alone at 3 AM?

I also loved writing about six Iraqi lawyers who came to Chicago to study our legal system through DePaul Law School. I went with them when they went on a tour of City Hall and took turns sitting in Mayor Daley’s seat in the City Council.

And I enjoyed writing as well about a beautiful and talented lawyer who taught women how to get a husband; and a stripper who gave classes at the Discovery Center; not to mention a pyramid scheme I pretended I was interested in to see how it worked; and last but not least, I wrote about a woman named Lottie Da. And scores more stories, too many to list.

I also had all sorts of things done to me (like new-fangled massage) or taught to me (like Feng Shui) and I went to unusual places–like the Weber Grill Restaurant in the suburbs that had a ton of Weber grills going inside that I incredulously described for Reader readers.

At one time, I wrote a ton of stories about art. One that stands out was about a father and daughter who were both doctors but also artists at an Old Town studio where they showed their work. I wrote so many articles about artists–from my friend Marya Veeck to my friend Sandra Holubow–that crazily the art PR people thought I was the Reader art critic and I collected a huge moving box full of correspondence from them.

Another year, I became known as a sex writer–my friend, the late PR maven Judy O’Brien had cultivated a number of clients in the sex business–from a real life dominatrix to a sex toy store that had parties. I wrote about it all–and that year, for the Reader’s end-of-the-year issue I wrote about my time (as a City prosecutor) prosecuting johns–by listing all the excuses men had for ending up in their cars on city streets with prostitutes. Instead of using bullet points for the list, the Reader used little penises.

One of my friends, Deanna Isaacs, who worked with me when we were police reporters at the famous City News Bureau of Chicago, and who made a career as an arts columnist at the Reader, said when she read my Sunday column in the Tribune and my Reader stories about such subjects, she kept imagining a mixup and the stories ending up crossed and taking up each other’s space–and we laughed a lot about that.

Even though I wrote for the Reader for about a quarter century, there were about three years in the early ’90s when it was like a full time job. I was always planning or working on something. That was my heyday. After which I dribbled down, culminating with Reverend Al in 2008.

And I became part of a scenario that I saw happen to other Reader writers of the same ilk. As I wound down, another writer with his own ideas was on my heels. Adam Langer. Who became a novelist–and we read his first one in my book club–about life in Rogers Park when he was growing up.

And that was how it went. For us independent writers, we gave it our all and then we kind of fizzled out and…and moved on. Perhaps for something better, perhaps not.

When I got paid for the Reverend Al story, the check was so small and the envelope and address was so unfamiliar looking, I almost threw it away–I thought it was a come-on for a magazine subscription (you cash it and they start sending it).

But the Reader had been sold (and sold several times since) and I hadn’t written for it much since my heyday–and it was another sign that it was over for me.

And so, that was that. The Reader became a part of my past. But I will always remember that while I was writing a Reader story one day in the early ’90s that I had my first experience with Flow.

And I also learned the greatest lesson. I had learned what the Reader was there to teach. And they taught it well. That wherever you looked in life, there’s a story that the vast majority of people will never see. Unless people like me write it.

The stories were there. And I always saw them. And I still do.

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