Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cool Way Up, Fast Way Down

Unfortunately they've muted the music from Loveland Pass Street Luge due to a copyright beef. I like something that starts out smooth and tasty and then gets whipping. Like this.

God damn I miss Colorado.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Indian Summer

We're having one of those October days in Chicago, the kind that make Snowbirds homesick.

As I was driving to the shop, I thought this might be a great opportunity to get started on that "Doors of Park Ridge" poster.

East of the Pickwick Theater, any turn north off of Touhy Ave. brings you through the older section of town. Some of these houses have been here for a century. In most cases, the old houses that remain were the larger houses back in the day. Nice big Georgians and Mediterraneans and Victorians, houses with some fucking charm. There are some modest sized homes that remain, but they were fairly large back when they were built.

Sadly, almost all of the Cape Cods are gone. My favorite.

Late in the 20th century, and through the first decade of this century, it was decided that small houses are stupid. Everyone had to have 3800 sq ft. Everyone needed 6 bedrooms, 4 baths, a "Great Room" with a vaulted ceiling to greet visiting heads of state or some fucking thing, oh and don't forget the solar frickin' greenhouse.

So now, the old section of my adopted home town is a mix of great old homes, and McMansions.

And I watched it happen. Outside of my brief foray into the glamorous world of executive transportation, I have worked on the homes of this community since the day I graduated from high school in 1978. With absolute honesty I can say that I treat all my customers the same way, but I take extra satisfaction when I work on an old house. I pay more attention to details. I hate McMansions. Every time I saw another old, smallish home torn down I got bummed out. Whenever I get a call from a McMansion owner, I just shake my head.

It's not that I half-ass my way through a McMansion window replacement job, but I am also well aware of the fact that those windows should not need replacement. Not yet. They're only 20 years old. The windows on the older homes, the hundred year old homes, are still functioning beautifully. Wood prime windows protected by wood storm windows that were manufactured with such quality that it still boggles the minds of the wonks at Pella.

And the doors, they had character.

They had stories. Like this one here.

Can't you just feel the history? Imagine the thousands of times children ran up those steps and dashed in the door with great news or a cut knee.

Or that one. I picture some pimple faced kid carrying a flower in a box, wearing his first tux, got the old man's 57 Chevy idling on Elm, nervously edging his way up that sidewalk.

A look across the street, and I know with certainty that history lives there. I know now that a young girl, and then a young woman walked through that very door, every day of her life, loaded with ambition, and visions of greatness. That was 40 years ago, and I'll bet you a trillion dollars that if Hillary found her way to my little blog here, the memories would come flooding back.


Back in 1992 we flooded Chicago. Well, I didn't but the people at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock did. While working on the Kinzie St. Bridge, near the Merchandise Mart, they punched a hole in the floor of the Chicago River, and we all learned that our high-rises have basements. We also learned that if you have a series of antique coal delivery tunnels connecting all of the basements, and if you allow the Chicago River to begin flowing into those tunnels, the result is chaos. Bedlam.

There's a chapter of Behind Black Glass devoted to an evening I spent driving a man named Witt Barlow from local TV station to local TV station. It was the night of The Flood. That charter was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Mr. Barlow was the boss at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock. The honcho. I had Satan in my car.

Witt was in defensive mode. He had 3 young publicists traveling with him, and they had charts and graphs and all kinds of visual aids that were being passed around the back seat of my car.

Oh, and I was totally eavesdropping.

At one point Witt motioned towards the blowup up a picture taken in the flood zone and said "But you can see right there that those are the creosoted piles. We didn't drive those! Here's the ones we drove right here. THOSE AREN'T OURS!"

And one of the publicists said, "Yeah. Yeah. Say that. That sounds good."

And Witt said, "It's the truth."

And the publicist said, "Even better."

I'll never forget that exchange for as long as I live.

Shortly after that, although not shortly enough thanks to Richie and his merry band of morons, a man named James Kenny and another guy named John Kenny came along and made a management decision.

While Daley and his fellow criminals cowered in the corner of an office at 121 N. LaSalle, the kids at Kenny Construction decided to stuff a very large fucking cork in the hole in the floor of the Chicago River. Then, they went upstream and sealed off the tunnels thataway, and then they went downstream and sealed off the tunnels down there, and with that the basements of Chicago stopped taking on water.

Genius. Pure, simple, stupid, genius. Grace under fire.

Kenny Construction became local heroes. Kenny Construction took its place in the history of Chicago. Rightly so. Kinda.

Some years later, a man walked in my shop, looking very much like Arnold Palmer.

Dude dripped class, although he tried to hide it. Jeans, blue oxford, Polo windbreaker, Johnston and Murphy loafers. Looking closer to 50 than 70.

"Are you related to the people that saved the city from the flood?" he asked with a strange grin.

"Uh, no, I spell it differently."

"Bet ya get asked that all the time."

"You have no idea. I hear James Kenny got the Irish Ambassador gig."

"He did. He's a friend of mine."

"Then why did you ask...."

Just grinned at me. He was testing.


His name is John O'M. Turns out he worked for the company that laid the foundation for Trump's new tower by the river. Actually, he's sort of in charge at that company, but you'd never know it unless I told you.

"What can I do for you Mr. O'M?"

"Call me John."

"Thank you."

"I need you to fix my door. It's on an old house, and I don't want to replace it."

"I can do that."

"I know. How's your dad?"

"He just retired."

"I know."

The son-of-a-bitch was testing me the whole time, the bastard. I guess I passed because John and I have become friends. Not like every day friends, but in the last decade I've spent many hours sitting at my desk and talking with him. Not exactly a father figure, I have one of those, but a real solid guy who has seen far more than I have. I'm lucky to know him.

I told him my Witt Barlow story.

(For awhile John, I drove a limo. My dad and I were fighting..... "I know." Fuck!)

Turns out that my friend John and his company had plenty to do with plugging the leak too, although they didn't carp about Kenny Construction getting the face time on WGN.

Oh, and he trusted me enough to let me work on his door. He wanted to keep the old wood, but put modern storm protection over the entryway to keep the elements at bay.

That's John's front doorway. The side-lites and the storm door were easy. The transom window not so much.

And they have a great tree on their parkway that always goes code red around now. It's one of the reasons I took this picture. The girl walking up the sidewalk with her lab tried to step out of the picture while I tried to include them.

"Beautiful tree isn't it?"

"It sure is."

"Hi buddy!"

"That's Riley."

"Hi Riley. Gooooood dog. Stop sniffing my balls Riley. I've been watching that tree turn colors like this for over 30 years now. I never get used to it. I love the house too. Friends of mine."

"What a shame. Terrible news."

My fucking heart sank. Oh no. Don't tell me this. Not my friend.

"They moved."


Friday, October 09, 2009

My Stockholm Syndrome

Seems pretty clear to me that there's something very interesting about Scandinavia, something that I'd ignored for far too long. And that includes the kids in Finland and Iceland in my world, although for some reason some people want to give the cold shoulder to the Finlandians and Icelanderinos.

While I now acknowledge that Danes, Swedes, and Norwaychkins should consider themselves the cream of the human crop, the hippest people on earth, I must insist that we toss the Finnies and Icers in that same hopper of hipness.

Fair is fair. If you have to tell someone you're from a place that got its name from ice, or you come from a land that sees 45 minutes of sunlight every third year, you're a Scandinavian.

For the better part of my life, Scandinavia meant hot blondes, smoked fish and cross country skiers.

But pasty, both the hot blondes and the skiers, sometimes both. Very pasty people, the Scands. It's from the lack of light, and yet they never get Seasonal Affective Disorder. That's because they're the coolest people.

I can see that now.

You never hear about anybody from up there starting a fucking war, do ya?


Well, not lately.

So I started getting this warm feeling for my frosty friends just this past week. I'm well aware of the fact that the Olympic voters flew to Copenhagen from all over the planet, but the fact remains that the Dennish were the hosts of the party, and they set the tone that ultimately resulted in the resounding victory we Chicagoans, for the most part, celebrated on Friday October 2nd.

Thanks Copenhudlians.

I figured that was the end of my passing fondness for people from the Land of The Midnight Snowmobile Ride, but no, they've drawn me in deeper now.

A Nobel Peace Prize?

You kiddin'?

Another Nobel for the University of Chicago?

A Nobel Peace Prize to former Illinois state rep, former Illinois Senator, and current US President Barack Obama?

He's from Chicago too! Not originally, but after Kenya and Hawai'i, he moved here. He did community service here. His wife's from here. You could look it up.

44 is Nobel Prize #84 for the University of Chicago?

Two Nobels in one week for the Maroons.

These people are really too kind.

I'd like to say that it might be a bit premature, but I won't. I figure the Nobel people are going for overall effect here. Certainly Barack is a terrific guy, a hell of a speaker, and yes he's from Chicago, but he really hasn't had the chance to fulfill most of his promise. Right now he's potentially great, but I'd like to see him actually withdraw our troops from several dozen places, and THEN give Chicago our Barack his Nobel.

But again, I'm from here and not from Stockholm, Denmark or Helsinki, Iceland. In those places, I can certainly imagine that Barack Obama is seen as the guy who took the first steps in undoing everything that his predecessor had screwed up. They must see Barack as the dude who stopped the naked agression practiced by the man before him, and they probably see that as a form of bringing peace. They must think of America as less threatening now. I'm good with that.

I could easily throw a few caveats out there, but I don't want to have anything negative to say to, or about, my new Scandinavian friends.

I'm captive to them now.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Alone in The Wilderness

Caught a video when it was first released in 2003 on WTTW, Chicago's PBS station, about a man named Dick Proenneke, and was reminded of Dick while watching The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

A most remarkable man, and a most remarkable story.

The documentary is entitled Alone in The Wilderness, and is based on the book Dick and Sam Keith released in 1973 called One Man's Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey.

Dick was born in 1916 in Primrose, Iowa. After joining the US Navy in 1942 and serving as a carpenter, Dick contracted rheumatic fever and was given a medical discharge. He went to school to study diesel mechanics, and became certified. He plied his trade briefly in Iowa, and then moved to Oregon in 1948.

It was in 1950 that Dick moved to Shuyak Island, Alaska and began servicing heavy equipment and diesel engines for the gang at Kodiak Island naval base. He spent the next 18 years as a highly sought after mechanic, as well as a salmon fisherman. Finally, he took a job with the US Fish and Wildlife Service at King Salmon on the Alaska Peninsula.

In 1968, Dick retired and moved to Twin Lakes, Alaska which is where the real story starts.

I was delighted to discover that the documentary has been uploaded.

Thank God for YouTube.

Bob Swerer and his son Bob Jr. flew in to see Dick in the early 90s, and Bob has graciously added this video as something of an epilogue to Dick's amazing story.

In 1999, at the age of 82, Dick Proenneke left Alaska to live out the rest of his life with his brother in California, and in April of 2003 Dick passed away after a stroke.

He left his cabin to the US Park Service. It is a popular place for tourists to go and marvel at the man's skill, and it has become something of a symbol to dreamers like me.

One of the narrators of Ken Burns' incredible parks documentary made the most wonderful observation about Denali, and the other vast Alaskan National Parks: " I may never visit Alaska, but it is important to me to know it's there."

I feel the same way about Dick Proenneke's cabin at Twin Lakes.