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Mondays with Mike: Dirty jobs

July 31, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

We like to look at other peoples’ jobs as easy. If they don’t meet our standards? They’re lazy or incompetent. Sure, we bow to brain surgeons, airline pilots, elite athletes and the like. But waiters, bartenders, construction workers who have the nerve to be taking a break—we freely disparage them when they fall short. We’re a bunch of Yelpers.

I’ve come to realize that everybody’s job is actually harder than it looks. I had a discussion with a bartender a few days ago and after trading stories, we agreed: The United States should adopt a military draft with a national service option. Don’t want to go into the military? Then national service, with an emphasis on service. Waiter. Customer service agent. Gate agent at the airport. No one gets out of it, regardless of family wealth or education.

I got to thinking about all this after getting the chance to do a ride-along of sorts with our friend, Chuck Gullett, who’s a successful real estate agent. (We’re not moving, so sorry Printers Row, you don’t get rid of us.)

Chuck was one of Whitney’s walkers while Beth was incapacitated by her heart issue a few years ago. You may remember he guest posted about a visit to the eye prosthetic studio with Beth, too.

Now, I’ve groused about real estate agents in the past—but really, it’s more about the whole process—which a good agent like Chuck helps one negotiate.

There are the requirements of the clients, which aren’t realistic. And not always consistent between both parties of a couple.

Then there are the descriptions, which make pretty much every cozy cottage seem ideal. So you don’t know anything until you visit a place.

Photo of Chuck attempting to open a lockbox.

Let’s play guess the lockbox!

That’s when Chuck becomes chauffeur. And he drives, and drives. North Side, Lincoln Park, South Side, West Loop, and back again, and sometimes during rush hour.

Chuck has a dash cam.

I asked him about it. Seems he got clobbered awhile back and while the car is back in one piece and he was uninjured, the settling of things remains messy. He doesn’t want that to happen again, so he wants video.

He’s already caught one accident—a scooter in front of him getting put down by a car. He stopped to get the scooter rider’s email, and he later sent the video for insurance purposes.

Then, finding parking. You think we can get away with doubling up here? Can we be done in 15 minutes? Take a shot.

Sometimes there’s a building with a doorman that has a key. Many, many other times, there are lockboxes. Plural emphasis. Sometimes a dozen, lined up on wrought iron fences, or low-lying pipes. As in low enough to be left-dogleg level.

Directions can go something like this: It’s the lockbox to the left of the water meter right next to the hydrangea bush.

Eventually, it’s found. If it’s one of the low lying ones and liquid comes out when you open the box, you hope it was from a recent rain.

Sometimes, there is a not a key, but a ring of say, a half dozen unlabeled keys. After trial and error and jiggling, you finally get in and…

…it’s a dump, not a fantastic cozy cottage.

The client’s face droops. Chuck goes into his best therapy routine.

Off to the next one, it’ll be better.

Then, once a property is found, there are inspections, closing agents and lawyers.

Thank goodness it’s not my job! And thank goodness there are the Chucks of the world, who can do it with aplomb.

What we can learn from immigrants

July 30, 20174 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, politics, radio, writing

Wanda Bridgeforth and I had a ball during our interview on WGN Radio last night, and as our amiable host Dave Hoekstra walked us out of the studio afterward, he called out, “Wanda, you’re a pistol! Will you come back to do another show?” As they say in radioland, “Stay tuned.”

Audrey Mitchell and I were a hit at our Skyline Village presentation Friday afternoon, too. More on both of those events later this week. After Dave Hoekstra’s program comes out online I’ll be able to blog with a link to the radio interview and publish some photos from last night — and photos from Audrey’s Friday afternoon appearance at Skyline Village, too. In the meantime, allow me to introduce a couple other writers in my life.

Some of the most talented writers in my memoir classes are immigrants. Wanda is one of them: born in Canada, she came to Chicago as an infant. Other older adults in my classes came to Chicago from Czechoslovakia, Austria, the Philippines, Germany, India, France, Egypt. Anu Agrawal immigrated to America from India in 1969. She’s in Wanda and Audrey’s downtown memoir-writing class and generously agreed to let me publish an excerpt here from one of her essays.

“The Travel” opens with Anu pointing out that “when we travel by bus, train or airplane, we have all the information about our travel plans.” What would life be like if we had the same information for our life journey, she wonders. Would we live differently if we knew how long our life journey would last, if we knew when we’d arrive at our final destination?

“Maybe not,” she decides.

“I see the same human behavior in our short travel by bus, train or airplane,” she writes. “Some passengers are good decent people, who are warm and helpful to others; but some are selfish and mean.”

Two women Anu encountered on an overnight train journey in India in the 1970s still stick with her now, some 40 years later. From her essay:

One good looking seemingly wealthy woman in her early forties was sitting across my seat. She had occupied two other seats by putting her belongings, which she could have easily put under her seat. But she wanted to grab as much space as she could and did not care for the inconvenience to other passengers. She had an arrogant and smug look on her face.

There was another young woman with a child who had occupied only one seat. she had simply put her belongings under her seat and held her child in her arms. She looked very contented and had gentle, calming look on her face.

Whenever I have doubt about my travel behavior, these two women pop up in my mind to guide me.

That’s my friend, Carolyn Alessio.

Another talented writer in my life, my friend Carolyn Alessio left her job as a writer and editor for the Chicago Tribune Book Section years ago to teach at Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a school known nationally for its innovative ideas and emphasis on building student character.

I’m not sure how she finds the time, but while teaching a talented group of high-energy teenagers, Carolyn has also managed to continue writing. She is the prose editor at Crab Orchard Review, and her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, TriQuarterly, Boulevard, and, last week, in Scoundrel Time.

Carolyn’s Scoundrel Time article Sanctuary, City begins with a description of reading Elie Wiesel’s Night with a freshmen English class on Chicago’s largely Latino Southwest Side. She had to go over vocabulary words like “invective” and “anti-Semitism” with her students, but one term they had no trouble understanding? Deportation.

From the piece:

Even though our school’s students reside legally in the United States—documentation is required for the corporate internships that finance their tuition—everyone knows members of the community who are not so fortunate. To my students from La Villita, or Little Village and nearby, the number includes neighbors, friends, relatives, coaches, church members, and local business owners.

Carolyn’s piece is very well-written, and the first-person accounts of her teenage students (all of them documented) and the feelings they carry around for relatives and neighbors that may be taken away from them gave me a different look at immigration–and immigrants–in our country today. It also reminded me of how much we can learn about ourselves and our country from the experiences of immigrants. I hope you’ll read the entire piece — we can all learn a lot from these high schoolers.

Tune in to Wanda on WGN Radio tonight at 9:30 p.m.

July 29, 20177 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, radio
Photo of Wanda with Hanni, Beth's former Seeing Eye dog.

That’s Wanda years ago with my second Seeing Eye dog Hanni.

Anyone who has followed our Safe & Sound blog for a while knows who Wanda Bridgeforth is. You’ve seen her photo here. You’ve read her writing here. But do you know what she sounds like? Now’s your chance! Wanda Bridgeforth is going to be on the radio with me tonight!

Saturday, July 29, 9:30 p.m.

WGN Radio, AM 720, Nocturnal Journal

We’ll be on the radio from 9:30 pm to 10 pm, a live half-hour interview with Chicago journalist and author Dave Hoekstra.

You can also watch and listen to us live in the studio via WGN’s lifestream. And, if you’re out and about on Michigan Avenue, we’ll be in the sidewalk level studio at the Tribune Tower (435 N. Michigan)–you can look and and listen to audio that’s piped to the street.

A 95-year-old witty, wise and talented writer, Wanda has attended the memoir writing class I lead in downtown Chicago for over a decade now. On WGN Radio we’ll talk about her life, her writing, our memoir class and her role in my new book, Writing Out Loud: What a Blind Teacher Learned from Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors. To give you a better taste of what you might hear on air tonight, I’ll leave you here with an excerpt from Writing Out Loud where I introduce Wanda and her friend the late great Minerva Bell to readers. From Chapter 19, “Friends”:

Minerva and Wanda bring a slice of Chicago history with them. Tens of thousands of Southern blacks flooded into Chicago during the Great Migration of the early 20th century. The friends’ essays describe Bronzeville, the segregated neighborhood they grew up in, as a “city within a city.” Overcrowding,  joblessness, and poverty were facts of life, but so was literature, jazz, blues, and gospel music.
DuSable High School, the first Chicago high school built exclusively for African-American students, opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood in 1935. Minerva transferred in as a sophomore, and Wanda was a freshman. “I was in the birthday class,” Wanda reminds us.

DuSable was built on Chicago’s South Side 15 years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Wanda says it was built to keep schools segregated. “We were blocked in,” she writes. “We knew not to cross Cottage Grove, 51st Street or the train tracks.” Everyone inside those boundaries was Black. “That was our neighborhood, and DuSable was our neighborhood high school.”

When DuSable first opened, some neighborhood parents applied for permits to get their children into nearby White high schools. “Their parents didn’t think a Black school could be any good,” Wanda writes, adding that she felt sorry for those kids. True, DuSable classes could be very crowded; she remembers 50 or so students squeezing into classrooms. “But at those other schools, if you were Black and you wanted to be in a play, you had to be a maid or a butler,” she writes. “At DuSable, we did everything, we were in all the plays, we wrote the school newspaper. We were having such a good time at DuSable.”

Between the two of them, Minerva and Wanda were at the high school between 1935 and 1939. During those years they walked the hallways with some pretty impressive classmates, including Nat King Cole; John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines; Harold Washington, first African-American mayor of Chicago; Redd Foxx; and Dinah Washington.

“Nat Cole added King to his name later,” Wanda tells me with a laugh. “You know, like Old King Cole!”

They remember Dinah Washington when she was Ruth Jones, and they knew Redd Foxx as Jon Sanford. “His brother was Fred, that’s who Sanford and Son is named for,” Wanda tells us. “They changed their names once they were stars.”

DuSable’s initial fame was in its music program, and Wanda and Minerva both sang during the “Hi-Jinks” student talent shows there. “We were in the background, but we put on shows that were better than what was going on in Chicago professional theatres,” Wanda writes. “With musicians like Ruthie Jones and Nat Cole and all of those guys, we couldn’t miss!”

Tune in to WGN Radio tonight to hear Wanda tell her story in her own words. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Come this Friday and get a history lesson from Audrey

July 26, 20174 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking

Hey! I’m doing another Writing Out Loud event in Chicago this Friday, and Audrey Mitchell (a writer from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center) is going to be with me at this one, too:

Friday, July 28, 2017
1:00pm – 3:00pm
Ditka’s Restaurant, 100 E. Chestnut

Photo of Audrey Mitchell speaking into a microphone.

That’s Audrey being recorded for a video about our class.

I’ll be signing copies of Writing Out Loud afterwards like always, but the Friday presentation itself will be different than the others I’ve done lately. For starters, this one is at Ditka’s! The restaurant provides lunch (Dutch treat). Second, I’ll be giving a very short in-class writing exercise during this presentation. My hope is that a quick assignment like this might encourage attendees to start writing their own life stories. Third, I’ll have Audrey up there with me!

The event is sponsored by Skyline Village Chicago, a community of older adults in the high-rise neighborhoods on the north side of the Loop. You don’t have to be a member to attend the Friday Forum event, but you do need to bring $5 along on Friday to help cover the cost of the room. You also need to save a spot (no charge for that!), by registering online by the end of the day today, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. You may also register by emailing RSVP@skylinevillagechicago.org with Friday Forum in the subject line, just make sure to do it today.

I can promise you the whole event will be worth attending just so you can meet Audrey Mitchell and hear her read her work. Audrey’s parents came to Chicago from Edgefield County, South Carolina, during the Great Migration. Before signing up for my class, Audrey had spent hours at her computer tracking down genealogical information about her family. After even more time at the South Carolina Archives, the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society, the Great Lakes Regional Archives, and Chicago’s Newberry Library, Audrey ended up with pages of names, dates, and addresses.

But no stories.

All her family stories were oral. None of them were written. Now Audrey is changing that. She’s getting family stories down on paper, and those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the Me, Myself and I class downtown get to hear her read them out loud every Wednesday .

Once it was decided that Audrey would be one of the writers we’d feature in Writing Out Loud, I took her out for coffee, brought my digital recorder (I told her it was running!) and enjoyed a couple of magical hours listening to her answer some lingering questions about her life story. Here’s an excerpt from Writing Out Loud where I mention that coffee date: Chapter 68, Why Audrey Stays in Chicago.

Audrey can tell how intrigued I am by all her research. Over a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop, she tells me more of what she’s learned.
The 1870 Census was the first U.S. census to list all persons, including former slaves, as individuals. “I don’t have their slave records, but I do know my great-grandparents lived in Edgefield County in 1870,” she says, reasoning that they’d stayed there after the Emancipation Proclamation. “I have oral history and written data to back that up, but what I’m missing is the voice of my older relatives, what they were thinking, what they were feeling and like that. That’s why I keep taking your class. So my stories don’t get lost like theirs are.”

She then reveals that she’s pretty sure she’s figured out who owned her great-grandparents as slaves.

I’ve heard this genealogy stuff can get addictive, but does she really want to know who the slave owners are? Audrey doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh, yeah!” she says.

I drum up the courage to ask an even more awkward question: Why?

Her answer is obvious. I’m embarrassed I had to ask.

“Most people do want to know who the slave owners were,” she says. “In most cases, they’re an ancestor, too.”

Audrey’s essay “Why I Have not Moved to South Carolina” is excerpted in Chapter 68, too. She’ll be reading that essay at the Skyline Village Chicago event at Ditka’s Restaurant this Friday, and she’ll be joining me for the Q&A afterwards to answer questions. I hope you can come! Just remember: you have to register by the end of the day today, Wednesday, to save a spot.

Mondays with Mike: It started as just another walk

July 24, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Our friends Nancy and Steven (AKA Hanni’s people) were in town to see Hamilton this past weekend. If you haven’t noticed this yet, Beth kinda liked Hamilton. A close second to seeing Hamilton for Beth is seeing friends right after they’ve seen Hamilton, so she can get all giddy with them and talk about Hamilton.

So we met Nancy and Steven for a great Thai meal right after the Saturday matinee. At first, they were quiet—not because they didn’t like it, but because they were sort of stunned by how much they enjoyed the show. Steven, who shares my skepticism about pop phenomena, was especially surprised at how good it was. Nice to be surprised that way.

Gradually, though, Beth got her way and they were comparing notes about favorite moments. And I remain the only person I know who hasn’t seen it yet.

After dinner, we took a long walk starting with Millennium Park as our first destination. Chicago in summer is always bonkers in a happy way, and Saturday was particularly bonkers.

When we reached Millennium, we stopped to listen to the Grant Park Symphony perform some Broadway tunes with a couple of singers. The place was packed, and there was just a nice vibe.

Saturday night Millennium Park

From there, we crossed the serpentine bridge across Columbus Drive and landed in Maggie Daley Park. It has rock climbing walls and some terrific playground stuff for kids, and a ribbon of pavement that winds through—in winter it’s iced for skaters, but rollerbladers were out Saturday evening.

An area around Jackson Street in Grant Park—where the city puts on lots of its summer festivals—had been blocked off a day earlier. But I neglected to check what it was. So we meandered to Summerdance, where an absolutely terrific Salsa band was playing. I counted 12 musicians, including three violinists—which was unusual by the band leader’s own account (violins are expensive, he chuckled). Again, the place was packed, and remarkably diverse, and the crowd exuded a remarkably happy feeling.

From there, we sought to quench our thirsts. But as we headed west on Balbo, I saw mobs of people outside the Hilton, and across the street from the Hilton in front of the Merle Reskin Theater. This past weekend was the Blackhawks Convention at the Hilton, so at first I figured it had something to do with that. But as we got closer, it got weirder. Steven, who had asked questions about Maggie Daley Park and other sights along the way, asked, “Can you explain this one Mike?”

I couldn’t. These people were acting oddly. We had to dodge and weave to pass through them. They were all looking at their phones. And some had phones that were wired to backpacks.

And then Nancy figured it out: Pokemon Go. The area near Jackson had been blocked off for a special Pokemon Go event to commemorate its one-year anniversary. Apparently 20,000 Pokers convened. And apparently, initially anyway, they were very disappointed. A failure of servers or cell service—or both—made the start of it something of a fiasco, and Niantic, the game creator, issued refunds to anyone who asked.

Even on Sunday, the Pokemon people were everywhere.

But they solved most of the problems later, and the mob we saw was out to collect whatever the hell you collect. Many had brought auxiliary batteries in their backpack.

We finally made it through the throng and I was relieved that we’d given Whitney the night off. She probably would’ve been stepped on more than once, and the Pokers were so enrapt that they didn’t even notice Beth’s white cane, which made for some interesting moments for me, the sighted guide.

We sought the shelter of one of our local watering holes on Dearborn. But no. Even more Pokers, on both sides of the street, and filling our little fountain park.

Eventually, we found seats at a place on Clark, where we ran into a couple of friends from the neighborhood.

When I started explaining about the Pokemon people, one of our friends immediately thought I was talking about the new Poke place that just opened our street. It took awhile to straighten all that out.

I mostly love my city in the summer, but every once in awhile, it’s like drinking from a fire hose.