Shutdown Holiday

Shutdown Holiday

Years from now, publications will appear describing what happened during the pandemic year 2020. Mystery books will include courtroom dramas defending murderers who snapped under the influence of cabin fever. Memoirs will be riddled with hours-long drives to grandma’s care center, only to wave to her from the parking lot. Chapters headed “Thanksgiving 2020” will describe ongoing feuds stemming from last-minute cancellations to the traditional family dinner. All stories will include descriptions of face-coverings and condemnations for and against mask-wearing.

In the Zoom gatherings I joined over Thanksgiving weekend, I could already see these stories brewing (ok, maybe not the cabin-fever murderer). In fact, I have my own who-done-it idea percolating.  It’s about a family trying to kill off the nonagenarian wealthy matriarch by insisting on a twenty-person no-masks-allowed family gathering. 

When my old friend, Abe, called and said, “let’s have dinner at Gibson’s,” I welcomed deliverance from Zoom socials. I forgot that I promised the mayor I’d stay home when she shook her finger at me on the TV. The last time I had dinner with Abe at Gibson’s, the Irish Rovers marched around to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The next day, Governor Pritzker got mad at us and shut down all the restaurants in Illinois. Eight months later, after a slight reprieve in the summer, indoor dining is shutdown again, but outside?

“Yes!” I answered. 

Abe is the kind of man who doesn’t talk on the phone. He’s such a good storyteller that he must see you in person, get your reaction, dangle unfinished vignettes that tease questions from you (“what happened next?”). Once he’s tantalized your curiosity and aroused your receptivity, he comes in with a big punch line that leaves you craving for more. This kind of storytelling cannot be done over Zoom.

Gibson’s has opened its second floor for diners. The steakhouse gets away with it by removing all the windows and calling it outdoors. The heat is turned way up. The first floor is sealed off, forbidden territory. I felt guilty enough about ignoring the command to stay home that I insisted on sitting at a table on the sidewalk terrace, outside, surrounded by umbrella-like flaming gas heaters.

I never removed my deep purple full-length down coat and hood with matching face covering. Abe notoriously underdresses for Chicago winters. He wore a windbreaker and wool beanie and brought a blanket. Our body heat swatted away the forty degree cold, at first.

The aroma of grilled steaks hovered around our table like a sizzling dust storm. We ordered a fast-cooking black and blue sirloin to split. Abe ordered a salad.

Forty minutes later Abe was still forking around in the arugula between his stories. My fleece-lined pants, wool socks and snow boots failed me as my body heat dissipated. I whined. Abe called the waiter.

“Could we have the steak now?”

“Oh, I was waiting for you to finish your salad before I put it in.”

That vaccine cannot come soon enough.

Screwed by Gary Hart

Screwed by Gary Hart

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I responded to a reporter about presidential candidate Gary Hart.

I was in Denver working on Hart’s campaign in May 1987 when The Miami Herald front-paged a photo of Hart in Bimini aboard the sailboat, Monkey Business, with a blonde beauty on his lap. Hart tried to conduct a normal campaign, but after a week of hounding from the media for answers to questions about his extramarital affairs, he dropped out of his race for President.

When the Hart campaign folded, I dispirited myself away to Indianapolis to manage an unpromising U.S. Senate campaign. I should have gone home to Chicago to look for a job there instead.

Six months later, Gary Hart changed his mind and started working his way back into the race. The day before Thanksgiving I was contacted by a reporter from the Gary Post-Tribune for a comment about the rumor that Hart was getting back in. My friend, Roger Ebert, a newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, always cautioned me in my political work to never talk to the press.

“You’ll just screw yourself,” he said. “They’re out to trip you up.” 

Roger’s advice?  Say, “No comment.”

I heeded his advice religiously until this particular reporter caught me off guard. I picked up the phone on my way out the door to Roger’s vacation house in Michigan. I’d been invited to Roger’s legendary Thanksgiving party in 1987 and was looking forward to a weekend of great food, real characters and loads of laughs. I never gave the reporter’s call another thought.

Roger Ebert loved people. He bought successively bigger houses in Michigan to accommodate weekend guests. During those weekends we’d take caravan excursions to the used book store in Niles and to art and antique stores in Lakeside. At home we played poker and watched movies. In his well-stocked kitchen everyone chipped in to make big family style meals. Roger told the same funny stories over and over. I was his biggest audience and his biggest target. He teased me relentlessly about all my losing campaigns.

“If you wanna place winning bets on who’s gonna lose, find out who Regan’s working for,” he’d say to any gathering.

On that Saturday Roger returned from the store in New Buffalo with the Sunday papers, bagels and cream cheese. Someone brewed up a pot of coffee and the weekenders gathered at the big old dining room table. All of a sudden Roger screamed that I was onth-6 the front page of the Gary Post-Tribune. When he read the quote aloud, he laughed so hard he could hardly spit it out.

“It’s his (Hart’s) swan song. This is like a lover who woos you, then dumps you, then comes back, asks forgiveness, woos you again and dumps you again. I’m not falling for it.” Said I.

I never lived it down. For the rest of the day, all the next day and nearly every time I saw Roger for years afterwards he recited my quote.

Gary Hart did get back in the race. And I did help him get on the ballot in Illinois. He got four per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, then dropped out again.

My candidate in Indiana lost.

But I gave Roger one big priceless punch line.

——————————

R.I.P. Roger. We miss you.

Father Hungry

Father Hungry

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Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

The week before Thanksgiving, 1991, I called my father from Little Rock to tell him Governor Clinton had told all campaign staff to go visit their families. 

“He said we’ll be busy and out of touch from December until the end of the primary season,” I said, letting my father know I’d be back in Chicago on Thursday. 

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

I was so caught up in the excitement of my co-workers’ plans to visit their families that I’d forgotten my father never made plans to celebrate holidays. Nor birthdays. Nor graduations. Nor milestones of any kind.

“Dorothy doesn’t want you joining us for Thanksgiving,” my father told me over the phone.

I can’t remember whether they were married yet or whether Dorothy was still just another one of the girlfriends. I had no particular ax to grind with her outside of her unnerving naiveté. She actually believed my father was going to provide a secure home for her and her son. When she showed me her engagement ring the previous summer and asked why I didn’t jump for joy that they were to be married, I thoughtlessly answered, “You’re kidding, right?” 

Like she knew what I knew.

Furious, alone and full of self-pity, I abandoned the trip to my home town and settled into catching up on the never-ending details of planning events, logistics, contingencies and recruiting new advance people for my candidate. When asked, I’d feign, “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with my father.”

The hunger to be normal is one of my fatal flaws.

But Governor Clinton was on to me. Late that Wednesday evening he called out of the blue and invited me to “come on over to the house” for Thanksgiving.

I drove into the guest parking lot at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion about 3:00 pm and recognized cars that belonged to staffers from the Governor’s office as well as the campaign. Bill answered the door, introduced me all around and took me into the kitchen to meet the chef.

He bragged that Clarence was the best cook in Arkansas, that he was once on death row for murder but that shouldn’t scare me because he’d pardoned him.

“Thas right. Thas right,” said Clarence.

People who study psychology say if a girl grows up craving attention from her father she will gorge herself on various substitutes to satisfy the longing. I certainly proved that theory while stuffing myself at the Clintons’ dinner table that Thanksgiving. The Governor kept telling Clarence to bring out more food. He insisted we all eat up, and my self-consciousness around overeating in public disappeared into 2nd and 3rd helpings.

After dinner Governor Clinton had us all go “out back” to play touch football. I sat on the sidelines with Hillary and others. The First Lady laughed and joked with us about the goofy footballers and told funny stories about Clinton’s well-reported inept sports activities.

On the way back to my apartment, I stopped by the campaign office to type some final touches into Clinton’s schedule for the next week in New Hampshire. Alone, but no longer angry, lonely or hungry, I paused, called my father and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving.