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Ghost Story

I used to walk on Chicago sidewalks with my head down watching for pitfalls, unaware of my surroundings — or with a companion, engrossed in conversation. Newspaperman Paul Galloway tutored me  in how to walk, talk and observe all at the same time.

I met Paul when he happened to sit next to me at his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979. As the meeting got underway, a wild woman charged up the timeworn stairs of the old State Street townhouse, raged into the open room screaming and throwing empty chairs around. A policeman was hot on the woman’s heels and escorted her out. We all sat back down and continued the meeting.

During the melee, I assured Paul she was a harmless neighborhood drunk. 

“Does this happen all the time?” He asked.

“Oh no. But we do get drunks. After all, it is AA.”

Paul found that hilarious and from there on we laughed our way into a fast friendship. I’d been sober for three years by then and he peppered me before and after meetings with questions. We had long funny discussions on how to be a sober alcoholic in the crazy world of the newspaper business. He searched police records for the name and history of the woman who rampaged through his first AA meeting. Whenever I saw her on the street I averted my eyes, but Paul greeted her by name.

I’ve read newspapers and watched television news as long as I can remember. Until I met Paul, it never occurred to me to look for those stories walking along city streets. Paul pointed out politicians, criminals, movie stars, sports figures and flash-in-the-pan celebrities. In the middle of a deep philosophical discussion on the nature of god, he’d suddenly blurt out, “Jesse Jackson ahead” or “Bill Curtis crossing the street.”

On one of our many walks through crowds along the bustling bars and restaurants of Rush Street, Paul pointed out young Michael Jordan in line at the Bagel Nosh. He recounted details from the sports page about the newest Chicago Bull.

He loved reporting intimate details of people’s lives that couldn’t be printed in the paper. This age-old form of communicating the news was in his blood. Was it gossip? Hell yes. He used gossip as a learning tool—how to behave and not behave. Deep down in his funny bone he had an empathic moralistic core. 

Paul’s wife Maggie called one day in 2009.

“Paul’s heart exploded,” she said, “He was at the Asian Garden Massage Spa and his heart exploded! He’s dead!”

A fastidious germaphobe, Paul couldn’t have been there for the “happy ending.” He’d retired from the newspaper, so I knew he hadn’t been on assignment, either. I thought she was joking. 

“What was he doing there?” I asked. Stunned and grieving, Maggie sought answers in the days after Paul’s death, but the spa ladies didn’t speak English.

Paul Galloway. He left one big gossipy story that he would have loved to tell himself.

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Read Roger Ebert’s Obituary of Paul Galloway.

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little 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: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay 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: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 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.