Saturday, August 29, 2009

Call it the Chicago-style school of hard knocks, one that no longer exists

One of my first jobs after completing a college education was one I often have alluded to in my commentaries published here – I was a reporter-type person for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago.

I was at the local wire service back in the late 1980s into the early 1990s, and my stay there got extended, so to speak, due to the last recession our nation went through. So few places were hiring that I got stuck at a low-paying job a bit longer than I would have desired.

NOT THAT I’M complaining.

Because for me, the end result was that I got to maximize the experience of being a Chicago-based reporter for the old wire service, and it gave me an education in the ways of Chicago that I sometimes think every resident of the metropolitan area would benefit from. It’s definitely a shame that new reporter-types in this city don’t get the experience.

Like many people who were born here, I had a home neighborhood, and a few other places where I knew people (born in the South Chicago neighborhood, and grew up in and around Calumet City). I also had visited some of the tourist-type places downtown that constitute Chicago attractions.

Yet there were also vast parts of this city that I had never set foot in. And I certainly had never bothered to go to places on Chicago’s outer rim such as Waukegan, Woodstock or Crown Point, Ind.

BUT I CAN say that City News sent me to all those places, and many more, as a reporter-type in search of the news.

I can also cite times I had to set foot in the district police stations, churches in ethnic neighborhoods and public housing complexes, some of the latter of which are now ancient history as they have been torn down as part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s attempts to beautify Chicago.

For me, the 8900 block of South Burley Avenue will always be the place where an intoxicated man tried to tell me at about 3 a.m. that a local tavern fire was started by “Martian-type dudes from outer space,” while breathing the stench of whiskey straight into my face.

I may have started out as a $190 per week reporter ($156.23, after taxes) who routinely complained about my pitiful salary (only to hear my managing editor say how he started out at City News at $29 per week some three decades earlier).

BUT A PART of the payment I got was literally an education in Chicago, which is unique because of its vast diversity in its neighborhoods. The fact that there are places so radically different from each other that can claim to have in common the fact that they both are within the city limits IS the character of Chicago.

Would anyone ever seriously mistake Englewood from Sauganash? And people who live on the East Side think both of those neighborhoods are somehow alien territory.

It put me into a mindset where I believe the people who need to be felt sorry for are the ones who literally know nothing beyond their immediate neighborhood. They would benefit from having suddenly to hop in their car or on a bus to venture into a strange neighborhood and immediately try to figure out who is what.

I literally remember the one time I had to go to Sauganash. I was working the overnight shift in those hours that technically are Sunday but many think are still Saturday night, and there was a fire at a church in that northwest side neighborhood.

I GOT TO the church, then realized I was in such a domesticated neighborhood that finding a pay telephone was going to be a hassle (these were the days when only technical geeks carried portable phones, and the rest of us laughed at them for hauling around that brick with an antenna).

But an elderly couple who lived across the street literally allowed me into their home (at about 4 a.m.), and gave me unlimited use of the phone to call the office at 35 E. Wacker Dr. to turn in the details, where a rewrite man then turned it into pedestrian copy that got used by news radio (remember when Chicago had dueling news radio stations?) all through the upcoming day.

It also was in those days that I got my first exposure to political people (I literally remember Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart from the days when he was a low-level assistant state’s attorney at the courthouse in suburban Markham) and the ways in which they attempt to do “the people’s business,” and if they can managed to give themselves a perk or two, what the hay?

But it was also during those years that I saw Illinois’ very own Sen. Paul Simon attempt to run for president (I remember chasing him down a flight of stairs trying to get an answer to a question) and also the rise from obscurity to prominent of Carol Moseley-Braun.

I ALSO CAN say I was on hand the day that Chicago gave a big downtown parade for the military veterans returning home from the first Gulf War, along with the day that protesters attempted to punish the state of Illinois by blocking the stairwells and entrances to the Thompson Center state government building, which resulted in government workers having to use fire exits in order to maneuver around the building.

These are just a few of the “war stories” I have in my mind from my City News days, which I may wind up sharing Saturday when I show up for what will be an informal reunion, of sorts, of City News types at the Plymouth Restaurant, 327 S. Plymouth Ct.

It will definitely be more interesting than any high school reunion, particularly my graduating class which was so inept that we did our 20th reunion 21 years after we graduated.

Then again, I’ll be in a room with dozens of other people with their own tales of working the streets of Chicago in search of news.

SO IT MAY be more interesting for me to just sit back and take it all in and hear about the days back when a Radio Shack T-80 model 100 was considered newfangled high-tech and one of the keys to being a good reporter in a competitive situation was to always be aware of where the working payphones were at any given moment.

I must admit that even though I now carry around a cell phone, I always try to make sure I know if there’s a pay phone on hand – just in case. It’s an old City News habit that likely will never completely go away.


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