Sweet Home Chicago

Today's UPI column
late here for the voting message - but I know you all did your job. Election days always make me homesick.

So There I was...

…poll watching in the 44th Ward of the City of Chicago, 1975. I was a youthful volunteer in the office of Alderman Richard Simpson, one of the two independent aldermen in the city run by Richard J. Daley, now known to history as Richard the First. I wasn’t old enough to vote but I was bright enough to poll watch. Poll watching was a tradition necessitated by corruption. The voting machines were those big mechanical monsters with the levers that clicked and the Las Vegas style side arm that swept your vote into the count with that satisfying "Ka-chunk.” At the end of the day a human had to open up the machine and look in the back and call out the numbers. Another human wrote the number down as they were called out, another human carried the book downtown, where more humans tallied the numbers from the books. And at each step of the way we assigned a human to watch the official human. Did he call out the number that was there? Did he write down the number that was called out? Did that book stop anywhere between the precinct and city hall? At each step corruption had its chance, and at each step we watched them. It worked pretty well as long as you had an army of volunteers.

This was quite an education for a young, optimistic kid interested in politics. City hall was a trip in those days. All the aldermen were men, and they were all white. Few of the staffers were female, and fewer still youngsters, but somehow I had the run of the place. The rooms of city hall were blue and brown with cigarette and cigar haze; the former tended to float above the latter. They had a thirty-gallon coffee urn, and they made the coffee on Monday and re-heated it all week. Friday coffee dissolved metal. You got tough or croaked. The guy I worked for lost every vote 48-2, but he knew he was right so it didn’t matter. Wrigley Field was in the 44th, and on a sunny, summer day (pre-lights at Wrigley) nobody cared if you took the afternoon off and took in a game. All in all it was a sweet deal.

I learned to take corruption as part of the package. There was a precinct in the city that was nothing but a mom and pop store and a cemetery, but that precinct turned out a large vote every time the Mayor was up for election. The bums loved Election Day; voting for whiskey kept them busy all day long. But I also learned that you could deal with corruption – you could witness to it – you could moderate it. Some days you could even talk to it and get stuff done.

The ironic truth was that while Dick Simpson may have needed poll watchers to get his votes counted, the Mayor never needed corruption to get his. Cook County Illinois may have stole the 1960 election for JFK, but the people of the City of Chicago loved Mayor Daley; he won by an honest landslide every time. The garbage got picked up, the snow got plowed, and everybody knew the rules.

My driver’s education teacher stood before our class and showed us how to fold a ten dollar bill behind our driver’s license in just the right way and then to present the whole wallet to the cop.
”Never, I mean NEVER, offer a cop a bribe,” He said.
“That’s wrong and it’s stupid – cops don’t like to have their integrity questioned. Put the bill behind your license like this – If he wants it, he will take it, if he doesn’t, he will take your license and hand you back the wallet. Nobody wants some snot nosed kid calling you crooked.”

I also learned about political delusion, a thing running rampant in our nation’s capital these days. Daley was getting old when I was there. He was fat. He was Irish. He smoked. He was red in the face all the time. It was only a matter of time until he fell over from a heart attack. And the city of seven million had absolutely no plan for succession. One day some alderman stood up in city council and said with great respect and humility,

“Meanin’ no disrespect to da mare, may he live to be a hunnert, but don’cha suppose we need ta, maybe, just in case, have a plan, you know, if, God forbid, something should happen ta him, a long, long time from now?”

Stunned silence ensued.

And then, Vito Marzullo, 25th ward, rose to his feet, and shouted at the top of his lungs;

“Our Mare, Richard J. Daley, mare of the great city of Chicago WILL NEVER DIE!”

And that ended that discussion.

Alderman Marzullo was, of course, incorrect in his assertion, Daley died a few years later, and it was a mess.

I have been thinking a lot about the oligarchy that was Chicago, and how much they loved voting. They loved it like they loved baseball. They loved it like they loved food and beer. Politics was the religion of the city as much as Catholicism. Looking back they were probably both corrupt, but back then nobody cared. People came from places where their grandparent’s votes and prayers weren’t counted.

I have been thinking about my friends in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They voted last week. For many citizens this is their very first taste of democracy. They are still waiting for results. The United Nations poll watchers report that despite incidents of violence and corruption the election proceeded with enough integrity that it should count. I am sure that they have relaxed their standards. But what people there are hoping for, dreaming for, is the kind of election that Chicago, America, takes for granted – that is one where the loser admits that he has lost, and does not immediately start an armed insurrection. Mr. Kabila and Mr. Bemba have both said they will respect the results, but they both have armies, and folks are worried. What the people of the Congo need is for the loser to lose, and then the winner to actually form a government that works, most of the time; well, some of the time would be a good start. They don’t have any snow to shovel, but they need some roads, and some police. Police who would only sometimes take the bribe would be a great start. At the moment, they only sometimes have police, and the police sometimes rape and kill. A democratically elected, predictable, stable, oligarchy would be a great improvement for my friends – like it was for Chicago in the 20th century.

I respectfully submit that we should send a delegation to help. Experience, a track record of
success, and karmic debt should determine the members. I nominate Fast Eddie Vrdolyak, Vito Marzullo and Dan Rostenkowski for point men.

Out of gratitude I am sure that the DRC would be glad to send us some great musicians, a thing Chicago also loves. Everybody benefits, everybody’s happy.

Now go out and vote! Once!

p.s. please do not write and tell me that Vito is dead. This I know. This has never yet stopped a Chicago politician.
A beautiful post! Robin M. sent me here, and I'm so glad she did. You have a gift.
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