Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches

Curious City: Scoop on the Poop at Chicago Beaches
 Recently NPR/WBEZ reporter Monica Eng called me about a question I submitted to WBEZ’s Curious City. She asked if I’d like to meet her at the Illinois water testing lab at UIC. Here’s what happened.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until about a decade ago, when she says a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because E. coli levels were too high.

Ever since, Regan’s been worried about water safety at Chicago beaches.

Still, for a while, she felt confident the city was responsibly warning people and closing beaches when fecal bacteria (measured through E.coli) got too high.

“In the early 2000s, they really reported that every day, and you’d hear it on WBEZ,” she recalls. “It was on the regular Chicago news. But I don’t hear it at all now.”

So Regan wrote in to Curious City with a few questions:

Is that water safe for dogs? Why don’t they close the beaches for E. coli anymore? Are Chicago beaches safe [from bacteria]?

The answer to that last question depends on a lot of things, like which beach you visit, what day you visit, and how old and healthy you are. But it’s an important question because, on most summer days, at least one Chicago beach has elevated fecal bacteria levels. In fact, one city beach recently saw a level more than 300 times the federal notification level — and remained open. Also, the public appears to be confused about how to interpret the city’s new swim advisory system. And so, in an effort to clear up any such confusion, we offer this handy primer on fecal bacteria on Chicago beaches.

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

Regan Burke used to love taking her dog, Usher, down to Oak Street Beach for morning walks — until a lifeguard came up to her and told her to get her dog out of the water because of high E. coli levels. (Courtesy Regan Burke)

How do I find out how dirty a beach is?

Each morning at dawn, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers collect two water samples from at least 20 Chicago beaches. The samples are delivered to a UIC lab where they are tested for enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria. The park district then takes the two readings for each beach and calculates a geometric mean (which is not the method recommended by the EPA; more on that later).

The city communicates its recommendations to beachgoers in three ways: on the park district’s website, through the city’s data portal, and through a flag system at the beach. Here’s how you can find it online:

Keep in mind that the Chicago Park District only posts the average (geometric mean). If you’re good with spreadsheets and you’d like to find the highest sample at your favorite beach on a given day, go to the city’s data portal after 1 p.m., export the data into Excel, and then sort to find the correct day and beach. Look under the “DNA sample” columns to find that day’s readings.

You can also check the flags posted at each beach:

Beach flags graphic

How can I stay safe?

Check the levels for your beach before you go. If fecal bacteria levels are anywhere near 1000 CCE, UIC public health scientists Sam Dorevitch and Abhilasha Shrestha say to consider avoiding contact with the water, particularly if you are:

  • Elderly
  • Very young
  • Immune-compromised
  • Pregnant
  • Or have an open wound
  • If you go to the beach before the website is updated, keep in mind that hard rains the previous day often result in high fecal levels the next morning.
  • If you swim on a day when levels exceed 1000 CCE, be careful not to swallow water or dunk your head.
  • Always wash your hands after swimming, especially before eating.

What can I do to make beaches safer?

  • Clean up your:
    • Food
    • Garbage
    • Diapers
    • Pet poop
  • Don’t feed the birds.

Wait. What? The city doesn’t follow EPA suggestions on when to warn people?

That’s right. The EPA suggests advising the public to take precautions when any single sample is above 1,000 CCE. The Chicago Park District, however, determines whether to notify the public based on the geometric mean of its two samples (which will always be lower than the highest single sample). In its 2012 guidance, the EPA suggests using the geometric mean “to assess the longer-term health of the waterbody”; not to determine whether to issue a daily warning. None of this EPA guidance is legally enforceable; it’s just a suggestion based on extensive research.

Officials from the park district defended their use of the geometric mean in a statement, saying: “Densities of [fecal indicator bacteria] are highly variable in ambient waters therefore a measure based off of a distribution, such as [geometric mean]…, are more robust than single estimates.”

Chicago Beach Poop By the Numbers, 2018 Edition

We crunched enterococci data from last summer, totaling 101 days. Below are some highlights, which take into account the differing standards used by the city and suggested by the EPA. Here are some highlights:

And what about the dogs and E. coli?

Chicago veterinarian Dr. Vaishaili Joshi says that dogs are exposed to E. coli all the time and usually don’t get sick. But, like humans, “immunocompromised pets, juveniles and seniors may be at higher risk of infection secondary to heavy exposure.”

More about our questioner

Regan Burke is a Chicago writer who worked in local and national politics — for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Adlai Stevenson — for most of her professional life. She details that part of her life in the upcoming book, I Want To Be In That Number, which she says is all about “politics and nervous breakdowns.”

As Regan grew up in Chicago and around the Midwest, she says her mom would often tease her for being a “nature lover.”

“I always thought of myself as a city person, but I do love nature,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I’m more interested and cognizant of what’s outside my window than what’s inside my apartment.”

When she heard the final answers to her questions about the nature on the lake, she had a couple of reactions.

“Well, I’m very impressed at the level of testing that they do on the Chicago beaches,” she says. “But, at the same time, we don’t get the results until 1:30 in the afternoon.”

Still, Regan was pleased to hear that dogs are not very susceptible to E. coli., despite what the lifeguard seemed to imply.

But when she heard that the city will never puts up a red flag or close a beach, even when fecal levels skyrocket, she was not pleased.

“That, to me, is appalling,” Regan says. “The idea that at 1000 CCE there is a health risk — I can buy that. But when it’s 300,000 and they don’t close the beaches? I mean, how sick are people getting? And people go to the beach with their dogs, their children and their grandchildren. They must close the beaches when that happens. It’s just appalling.”

The 9 minute audio story has more information. Listen here.

Submit your own question to Curious City here.

Follow Monica Eng:  @monicaeng.

Poop flag by Katherine Nagasawa/WBEZ

 

Murder of Writers

Murder of Writers

England’s WildPoplars honored me with an invitation to join the Murder of Writers collective in her online “Bird Garden”.  Her fluttery description and the story itself follows. 

Regan Burke flew into my window through one of the three blogs I follow (this is a self-imposed limit): Center for Humans and Nature. It slightly bends my own rules as it’s a series of essays – rich, thought-provoking, humbling in their quality. This post is like the best short story – it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and plunges you into a different world demanding some kind of resolution. Along the way it surprises (another reason to admire it) and it made me smile. It illustrates how nature so often asks us to reflect on phrases we occasionally find ourselves farting!

The piece also flew me where I will never get to – a City apartment during Canada’s big freeze, reminding me of the company of corvids. I’m delighted our exchange of e-mails and reading a preview of this post inspired Regan to expand her original piece into this even more captivating short story!

“Grey Crow Morrigan” for the Murder of Writers in the Bird Garden

Whenever I settle my fingers onto the keyboard to write a chapter of my memoir, I have only a vague idea of where I’m headed. I pluck away at simple sentences until mental snapshots start to bubble up from an underlying current swirling with all the original emotions like debris from a dislodged beaver dam.

The publisher of my book, I Want To Be In That Number, thinks comparing my sister to a garbage-eating crow needs a few particulars to support the claim. I concede the point. When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend the deep freeze at home writing about my strange and estranged sister. I opened my MacBook the night before the weather-forced hibernation to get started on revising my manuscript

I snapped shut the laptop, wallowed in self-pity for a while, then figured out how to tee up Amazon Prime with the full 18-hour series of The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel, a cheery antidote to agonizing over pilfered memories. I threw stale bread crumbs onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony hoping to nourish the house sparrows, finches and chickadees before they huddled together in eaves and cracked soffits to wait out the cold. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: Minus 23 Fahrenheit: I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peepholes to the outside world circling the balcony door handle and outlining my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain blinded me to the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street and any fool pedestrian walking in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a luminous cold so I grabbed a goose-feathered blanket, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted mid-morning by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp on the concealed balcony. Henry, an old West Highland Terrier is unfazed by nature’s surprises. He remained in his sleepy stillness.

I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass.

A murder of crows had come to visit.

I once told Josh Engel, a crow expert at Chicago’s Field Museum, that I’ve tried everything to attract crows to my balcony, including bits of raw chicken.

“You don’t have to do that. They’ll eat anything. Try peanuts,” he said, “just a handful. They forage.”

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot-wide wingspan. The crow and its cousin, the raven, show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease, or death. Indigenous tribes in the US Pacific Northwest believed the raven was a keeper of secrets that he doled out to help or harm men, women and children. Eskimos thought the crow could steal souls, a Faustian trickster. Flying around all of North America, they scavenge garbage and munch on mice, insects, seeds, fruits, leftovers in the country, suburbs and cities. They’re smart. They hide their food and come back for it. Research shows they don’t forget a face. If a crow looks you in the eye, she will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you for attention, like a wild pet. If you’re aggressive toward her or her family, she’ll call her friends over and they’ll all yell or even dive-bomb you.

One summer I monitored a group of black-crowned, grey-backed crows on the southwest coast of Ireland. The Eurasian Grey Crows flapped about the bee-buzzing fuchsia hedgerows surrounding the Crow’s Nest Cottage a mile up the hill from Roaring Water Bay. They settled on dead branches of a crab apple tree near the terrace where I had my morning coffee. I’m not a birder, but enough of a bird lover to know these tuxedoed beauties were not something I saw in the trees around Chicago.

In Irish folklore the Grey Crow is called the Morrigan, a female foreteller of doom. I learned from Hibernian folklorists the name Morrigan is derived from the word “maere” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Maere is my sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as does my name, Regan. Maere-Regan equals Mor-Rigan, or the nightmarish queen.

Dear god. Was the spirit world telling me I’m lashed to the monstrous Maere forever? 

The Morrigan bewitched me every morning of my month-long vacation. She lunged for the leftovers I threw out for her: plaice, red potatoes, asparagus, allowing her brood to pick up her scraps. I tried staring into her eyes, but she demurred, a typical cheeky Irishwoman playing hard to get. Or was this a shapeshifter, my sister reminding me she turned her back on me thirty years ago saying I was too fat and poorly dressed to be in her
family?

Since I’ve come up blank in trying to write vignettes and anecdotes about Maere, I feel safe imagining the Morrigan simply stole the memories; that she’s trying to save herself from whatever nasty old childhood narrative I may expose in my book.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in Chicago was to gorge themselves, find a safe place and remain still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: Minus 21 Fahrenheit. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I abandoned Mrs. Mazel and placed a chair well away from the clearing to observe the crows without startling them. I prayed. Come back. Please come back. They first landed late-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, a family of five, dipping to the balcony floor for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the alpha bird. After hours of transfixation, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, I trembled. Uh-oh. Were these bad omens? The Morrigan, come to steal more memories?           

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus two degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead.

Again. And again. And again.

The Polar Vortex ice curtain melted after the two-day blast moved to the east, opening up my quasi-natural bird blind. The cautious crows kept their distance when I was moving around inside. For days afterwards when I walked Henry in front of my building, they called to me. I watched them fly from the elms to the light poles to the ginkgo tree until they reached my balcony and dropped onto the deck to scrounge for the handful of peanuts I keep there.

One day, a few weeks after the first visitation, I walked out of my kitchen and spied a crow perched on the balcony. I froze. We locked eyes. He wiggled on down the railing and jumped into the balcony floor foraging for those peanuts, then flew off. Is it possible I bonded with this ominous creature I love so much?

It reminded me of a time I was in Los Olivos, California, visiting my friend Cappi. I noticed a gregarious Magpie couple nestled on a shed in the garden of a gift shop. Magpies are large black and white birds, the most intelligent of the crow family. They never fly over to the Midwest where I live, so I was quick to go round and have a chat with them. They yack yack yacked back to me. I was so enchanted that poor Cappi had trouble moving me on. We had been poking each other inside the shop to ask how to get 9c06b374-84d4-4609-b1ce-4a29cdb444cbto Michael Jackson’s ranch, each too embarrassed to admit our curiosity. Cappi finally pulled it off and we drove five miles up Figueroa Mountain Road to Neverland for a look-see. MJ had been dead for about two years then. We managed to snap each other’s photos in front of  Neverland’s iron gates, just as the guard came along to shoo us away.

Two Magpies yacked and magged at us the whole time from the olive trees overhead. They followed us all the way back to town, swooping down on the car and yelling, as if they were chasing us away from some danger at Michael Jackson’s ranch.

“Cappi! Look! They’re protecting us! Look! Look” I yelled over and over. Cappi averted her eyes. She was terrified.

Los Olivos, a historic valley town in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara was established in the 1880s by a young farmer who planted 5,000 olive trees on its ridge. This is wine and olive country, a perfect place for late lunch. We sat outside in the afternoon chill at the Los Olivos Cafe, one of the dining spots in the movie “Sideways.” I had hoped those Magpies would join us before the sun dropped behind the mountains, but they returned to their perch behind the nearby garden shop. Cappi, a perfect host who never balked at my entreaties to mingle with California nature, hated the cold. Wrapped in her serape, she was just grateful she didn’t have to duck away from birds while we savored our olive-oil drenched capellini.

Years ago I bracketed metal plant hangers to my balcony railing and hung bird feeders from the hooks. The small birds entertained me into the summer months until one day I got a call from the building manager. A resident and chronic complainer (maybe more than one) reported that as she was walking up the sidewalk to the front door she felt bird droppings on her head which she was sure came from my third-floor balcony. The manager and I laughed that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Nonetheless I had to remove the bird feeders. How will crow droppings, five times the size of sparrows, look on the sidewalk below come spring? The new building manager will be hit hard. He vapes under my balcony.

Crows may be harbingers of doom, mythical tricksters and stealers of souls, but every species I’ve encountered has captured my heart, not my soul. If they’ve stolen the bad memories of my sister, I forgive them for all of it.

I gladly delete that chapter from my book.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.

Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.

The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar. 

“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”

We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.

The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy. 

I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”

I did mind.

My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.

We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.

Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him. 

Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side. 

I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

On November 8, 2016, I settled into an election night victory party in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The first bit of bad news came over the TV early: Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh lost. Wizened political operative Keith Lesnick flashed a guttural look, “That’s bad.” 

Fourteen hours later, fellow campaign volunteer Susan Keegan and I drove home to Chicago. We had no victory, no trophy, no good news. What we did have was despair, hopelessness.

Years before, in April 1992, I returned from a grueling 90-hours a week job in the Bill Clinton primary campaign. A psychiatrist treated me as if I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Within a few weeks, Hillary Clinton came to Chicago to speak at a women’s forum. I stood alone in the back of the room, away from the crowd. Someone came to me and said Hillary wanted to see me backstage. She greeted me with a teary hug, said she was sorry I left the campaign, asked if I would consider working at the Democratic Convention in August. I told her I was too tired, that I wouldn’t survive. She understood, thanked me for all I did to get the campaign off the ground and assured me her door was always open. We parted as friends, equals really. When I later worked in the Clinton Administration, I saw her many times. My admiration for her superior intellect increased, always undergirded by her unscripted and genuine kindness toward me. 

I felt a thousand little cuts during the 2016 campaign, watching her withstand the cruelest name-calling and ugly attacks not only by her opponent but by my own friends. For months after the election I felt like she died, like I died, like the country died.

At the end of that bleak November, I looked out over out my MacBook Air, watched three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back—caw, caw, cawing at each other about their Thanksgiving dinner. I believed they knew me, saw me looking at them. They restored me, enlarged my soul, allowed gratitude to seep in, grateful for them if nothing else. I wondered for the millionth time since election day what Hillary was doing.

All of a sudden, something popped up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly broke off communing with my wild pets and opened the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either.  th-3  th-4Unknownmsnbc-logo_0  However, I had involuntarily begun to relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I clicked. The next thing I knew a little box appeared with a photo of a pair of shoes I coveted. Hmmm, I wondered if those were on sale. I clicked. As I lifted out of my chair to take a break, I saw two pop-ups I had to read first:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”  

It’s two years later and this compulsion, this savage addiction is my sentence for seizing the fantasy that something is going to happen to reverse the outcome of the election.

Any day now.

Bring On The Border Collies

Bring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.

Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.

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Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.