Chapter 39

Ed: Storm Warning…

“Loner to joiner
the thought of switching roles—
all but leaving one cold.”

          “Get outta here!”

          “Stay out of there!”

          “You don’t belong here…”

          “And you don’t belong here or there!”

          A skosh taxi downtime was needed to digest my Englewood encounter and chew over some fresh advertising ideas, particularly after having grazed that far down the Southside food chain. I’d since placed an exploratory call to that Ralph Desman ad guy, so back it was to jogging along the asphalt paths of Marquette Park, jotting a trickle of lame ideas, pencil to scratch paper against tree trunk and light pole, itching for better and more. I rounded the lagoon near the park’s Kedzie Avenue median, putting that body bag and coroner’s van behind me.

          But there was no getting around this latest turnout, cornered over on the southern, weedy Redfield Drive side of the grounds. Seemed that bunch I saw drilling the last time I ran here was back at it, only their brown shirts were T-shirt plain now, silk screened ‘White Power’ and swastika in blue, ‘It’s only a matter of time’ on the back side.

          The National Socialist Party of America, some 25 re-enacting storm troopers strong, was goose-stepping with authority, rehearsing for NSPA’s main event, particularly since state and Federal courts had recently begun green lighting their planned march on Skokie. District and Appellate judgments held that the north suburb could not enact ordinances to outlaw NSPA demonstrations within village limits, that these neo-Nazis were constitutionally entitled after all to go the extra mile to spill their bile. So the media were paying closer attention than ever to this fringy Chicago Lawn-based movement—lead story, front page, Tribune to TV nationwide—as were the ‘Serve and Protect’ squadrol boys in blue.

          They weren’t the only ones tuning in however. Nearly half of Skokie residents were Jewish, many Holocaust survivors or relatives of death camp victims, and residents were terrified and/or furious at the very notion of Nazis marching in their streets. Village board leaders had sued to block NSPA attempts the year before, passing permit restrictions and gaining injunctions to outlaw any such demonstrations, the ADL adding its own clout and lawsuit to the prohibition efforts of Melissa’s hometown.

          But then the ACLU stepped in, challenging village ordinances and other roadblocks as 1st Amendment violations—that these incitation and present-danger claims amounted to illegal prior restraint—and legal dominoes began to fall.

          That’s when Jewish groups throughout the country expressed their support for and solidarity with Skokie residents, not least the Jewish Defense League. More militant JDL types converged on the village, organizing Hora folk circle dances in downtown Skokie, pledging to engage the neo-Nazis in violent confrontation if need be, and here they were on this mildly sunny day, taking it to the NSPA on its very own turf.

          “Chicago Lawn is our neighborhood, and you Jew landlords are the ones conniving to bring them jigs in here,” said one of the White Power elite through his bullhorn.

          “You’re in America, Adolph, not the Third Reich,” shouted a JDL spokesman, backed by a dozen or so operatives, plus a sprinkling of civil rights and hard-hatted union activists. “Freedom and property rights extend to everybody in this country, not just to you bigots and your white-flight racist steering and redlining.”

          “Go back to Skokie, go the hell back to Israel, you commie Jews, and take your Jew tricks with you!”

          “No, you Nazi assholes stay the hell out of Skokie.”

          So it went, Sunday in the park, this was not; no Jovenzuelos on a Mission here. Tempers flared, bullhorns blared, and the man behind the loudest of them proved to be NSPA’s holy herr in chief. A smallish, non-Aryan looking Chicago native, one Frankie Fuhrery, was a cartoon clownish Hitler impersonator with a bad combover, minus the square patch moustache to cover his quivering upper lip.

          He had made his early bones with the George Lincoln Rockwell Brigade, but was eventually jackbooted from the National Socialist White People’s Party over a fumbled power grab. He then led the NSPA in mouse-hole obscurity until setting opportunistic sights on a blitzkrieg march into Skokie last spring in full Nazi uniforms—this after Chicago had shot his city permit application down and out.    Marquette Park rally

          Though cursed, vilified and death targeted ever since, today his scant cadre of followers stood frozen at attention over his shoulder, arms clasped behind their backs, rehearsing for a full-dress rally come long, hot summer. They were mainly a uniformly mongrel lot: Young long-haired greaser Jets and stoner park hangers, toolies and Fonzies looking for some reactionary action; older porkers with Meister Brau bellies and aching, achtung knees who should have known better, seething in stretched-out swastikaed undershirts, with nothing left to hide.

          All told, a party of casehardened spiritual cripples, fronted by a Reich Chancellor so stereotypically farcical he could have been a satirical mole planted by The Onion, Mel Brooks or Mossad. Still, they did have a point to make—Chicago lawn was changing, all right—and were sworn over Wolf’s Lair rubble to be seen and heard, to be true unyielding soldiers for ‘the white man under siege’.

          “Oh, we’re goin’ to Skikie. Take it to your shyster, hymie bank. Gonna show you what it’s about.”

          “And we’ll be waiting for you at the city line,” replied a Yippie shaded, muscle shirted JDLer, pointing menacingly toward the closed ranks. “For every Vilnius there’s a Nakam, Litvak, never forget that…”

          “The block-bustin’, the niggers comin’ over’s all your fault. Hitler had the right idea, barbeque the Jews!”

          “Gestapo goons like you lost the war, remember? Just like you’re gonna be going down in flames, no matter how much hatred you morons try to spew!”

          “Power, power, power to the white people,” shouted a small phalanx of neighborhood supporters who were tearing away from their little brick bungalows to weigh in on the confrontation—straight-arm salutes, and all. Who knew if any were former camp executioners or forced-labor guards in hiding? Nobody in Chicago Lawn was likely to say so if they were.

          “Death, death, death to the Nazis,” was the JDL megaphoned counter chant, something of a heckler’s veto, with the Stern force of a young battering Rahm. “To the Lithuanian stooges and Latvian death squads!”

          Once Chicago’s finest determined this un-permitted sectarian scrum had reached the boiling point, blue helmets waded in from their paddy wagons lining Redfield Drive, separating the factions, bringing order to the face-off with the tips of their nightsticks. The neo-Nazi unit gave parting salutes, then marched off in close-quarter formation past the tennis courts, along the lagoon’s southern path as CPD riot squads ushered the JDL contingent out of Marquette Park’s Mann Drive northern side.

          Der Frankie’s storm troopers were bound for their headquarters, a blockhouse former storefront with boarded over windows and fortified doors. Thinking in terms of out-group social dynamics and deviant collective behavior, I slowly followed their quasi-triumphal march out along 71st Street with grim, morbid curiosity—couldn’t help myself—all the way to their ersatz little Reichstadt. There, neighborhood juvies swarmed about a red, white and black Blazer, tricked out with all sorts of window bars, gun racks and amber running lights.

          In through the drab white brick façade, the block house’s signage reading war relics and army combat collectibles, came a fluorescent showroom of Third Reich memorabilia and devotional merchandise: Wehrmacht helmets, piped Luftwaffe uniforms, Iron Cross peak caps, Waffen SS collar patches and cuff bands, Totenkopf sleeve diamonds, Gestapo cruller boards, Allemagne field tunics, polished black leather belts, shoulder straps, jackboots and jodhpurs.

          Walls were plastered with Swastika flags, robo-signed photos of Goehring, Hess, Goebels and Mengele, oil portraits of Herr Hitler himself; framed blow-ups of goosestepping legions and Munich torch rallies in Agfa color and/or sepia tones; ‘Hitler is Goodness, the Fuhrer is God’, ‘White is Right’ and ‘Heil Yes’ posters unfurled over the doorways, Messerschmitt reproductions hung from the ceiling, along with Panzer artillery pieces, U-boats and V-2 rocketry.

          Brown-shirted staffers in red and black swastika armbands scurried about with Himmler efficiency, dusting gunnery shells, bayonets and truncheons. Other joyless Jerries refilled card tables with the latest White Power propaganda and racist hate-fliers, fresh off mimeo presses in the windowless back room, next door to their guns and ammo cache.

          The whole musty, glorified bunker was packed with gruff dabblers and disciples, heavy with excretions and tobacco smoke, to where a body couldn’t breath freely in their so-called Rockwell Hall. And I couldn’t help noticing the Goethe quote they had wood burned over the exit door: ‘There is nothing more terrible than ignorance in action’.

          I crossed back over to Marquette Park, beside myself with the overheated hatred and hostility, trying to assess the ramifications of all this—which probably never would have happened in Willow Grove, much less out west. Why did Martin Luther King and Al Raby have to target shaggy Chicago Lawn in the first place?  And when did this all start going down around here? Then why did these backlash losers have to bring their dirty laundry into Chicago Lawn, anyway? What did that say about them? About my parents and their chosen neighborhood? What did this say about me? Couldn’t be about me… What’s it to me, 

          So much for sociological empiricism: I flashed upon the entire ugly gathering, the neo-nutsies, the counter-punch demonstrators, the locals trickling out to vent their pickled spleens. What’s it to me, I shuddered, not my area of expertise—but was thankful Uncle Early and my father didn’t appear to be there among them.

sr dingbats

          “This yours?”

          “Yes, I came up with that when…”

           “You did this?”

           “Let me explain about how that one…”

           Limping back over to Francisco Avenue, albeit with a cherry cola pit stop at the California Street gas/con, I had rubbed a head spinning with Marquette Park’s conundrum-beats: that lagoonish body of water, opposing goon squads on the march—whether racial bleed-over from Englewood to Chicago Lawn would turn the Western Avenue battle line into a river of blood. The homefront provided little clarity, Mom bed resting again with cold compresses, dad puffing far away on his briar, glued to the kitchen radio news, farm futures and weather reports.

          I was scrambling to shower down and head for the Checker garage when I noticed a name and phone number on the flap side of a Catholic Charities envelope atop the dining room table: The return call from that Ralph Desman guy, which led me to this quickie late afternoon meeting on the River North threshold to the Magnificent Mile.

          “Won’t be necessary…sociology background, you say?”

          “Yes sir, two degrees worth—abstracts, thesis, even…contemplated a Ph.D., but…” I rattled on, eyes fixed on his turning of my stapled together sketch pages, how he settled on my Boraxo ad rough, with the headline, ‘It Goes Hand In Hand With The Working Man’.

          “Well, classroom sociology alone is light years away from what we’re doing here.”

          “Of course, I guess it’s light years away from a lot of things.” I caught my breath as he paused at a freehand door lock work-up, ‘Schlage. Lock Of Ages’.

          “It doesn’t hurt, however, and you do seem to have something of a way with imagery, and feel for words,” said the assistant creative director of Forrester, Blaine & Carruthers, a top-drawer advertising agency worldwide. FBC dated to the Packard, DuMont and Chesterfield days; only blue-chips sat in at this table, coast to coast, and Ralph Desman had been dispatched from the New York office to beef up FBC/Chicago’s heartland presence, primarily at the expense of those apple polishers over at Leo Burnett.

          Forrester, Blaine occupied four mid-level floors of the Equity Center, a 35-story gray/brown Skidmore, Owings-designed box rising between the Chicago River and buttress-topped, neo-gothic Tribune Tower—which ‘the Eq’ dared not overshadow.

          I’d parked a comparatively later-model 3199 in the cab loading circle out front of the Meisian modernist building, glancing across Michigan Avenue at the landmark Wrigley Building, white as the wrapper of a Spearmint pack, built on the manducating imperative of gum sticks and wads.

          I spit shined my oxfords, slicked down my hair while crossing the Center’s fountained Pioneer Court, stumbled through revolving doors to sign in at the security desk and ride an express elevator up to the 29th floor. FBC’s creative department receptionist deigned to call back for confirmation, then sent me down a long, quiet, wood-paneled corridor to an office once removed from the corner suite with the fuller Lake Michigan view.  Wrigley Building and Pioneer Court

          My timid tap on the half-opened door brought a curt greeting and gesture to sit across from Desman’s massive oak desk. Propped beside it were several illustration-size portfolios; atop same were stacks of scripts, reels, comps and storyboards, copies of Communications Arts, Adweek, Variety and Advertising Age.

          His office walls were covered with matted campaign ads, framed commercial screen grabs, shmoozy photos of various industry luminaries and showbiz types at agency retreats, Manhattan openings and L.A. awards presentations—alongside posters from The Met, Whitney and Guggenheim, along with a Hamptons’ sailboat blow-up or two.  B’nai B’rith and Hillel citations were trimmed in gold leaf and velvet relief.

          Behind the cluttered desk stood shelves lined with gleaming Addys, Clios, embossed client accolades, network broadcaster honors and magazine publisher commendations. Seated before them was a somewhat distracted Ralph Desman, gray J. Pressed with a custard cashmere turtleneck, gazing out smoked glass windows upon his partial view of the highrises across the Chicago River—that green, used rubber strewn waterway opening out to the blue Lake Michigan beyond. At least until he spun my way, skimming over pleasantries and past particulars, then tearing into what passed for my best spec material.

          “I’ve been working at it, Mr. Desman,” I said, tightening the Windsor I’d knotted in one of my dad’s recent birthday ties, concealed as best I could with the same outfit I’d worn up to J. Walter’s lobby at the Hancock Building. “And I know I can come up with more…”

          “Well, if that priggish bastard Everett sent you over, what the hell,” Desman said, handing back my ‘book’, with a sigh of resignation. “We have a  lot of collateral pieces piling up that will require long-form copywriting. Think you’re up to it…Ken, is it?”

          “You bet, sir, I’ll give it my best…”

          “Then Ken it is, we’ll give you a shot,” he rose to shake my hand, scoot me out his door, so as to dive into some memos and reach down into his desk drawer to lube up for lunch. “Starting 8 a.m. tomorrow, base starting salary, plus per diem and standard benefits—I’ll clear it with the head honcho and boys upstairs. Welcome aboard, and get a good night’s rest…we have a lot of work to do.”

          Total fluke, accident of timing, simple supply and demand: That’s all I could make of this fast-acting development, but I needed the money and sure couldn’t argue with an opportunity to start fresh. I sallied past that preoccupied receptionist with a double tap on her desktop, then floated down the express elevator like cottonweed in a summer breeze.

          Skipping across Pioneer Court, I picked up a loading zone citation from under 3199’s wiper blade, but more importantly, a fat airport run from the curbside underwriter staring a hole through his wristwatch, overcoat flapping anxiously in the wind. He fretted over missing a connection to Omaha all the way out to O’Hare’s departure level, while I flew through JFK’s express lanes on the Checker’s rattling body panels and shimmying wheels, smiling with relief that this hamster wheel of a living might be coming to an exit ramp.

          Dropping him at the United terminal with minutes to spare, I blew right through the airport cab pool, landing a city fare at TWA’s arrival zone. A grabby couple just in from Copenhagen directed me to their Uptown apartment building by way of the old Aragon Ballroom—or what it the Trianon—where I cashed them in for a quick trip to Clark and Addison.

          This bear of a Cub fan in full Bleacher Bum gear flagged me down, keen to coax the onset the friendly confines of springtime by scoring his season’s seats package at the ballpark’s cubbyhole ticket windows. There I left Wrigleyville for Streeterville with a gabby load of Chicks’ night out, then deadhead plugged through a Michigan Avenue bridge traffic jam, disposed to passing on a Bronzeville fare, gunning for splitsville from the daily grind, deadheading to the Checker Cab garage.

sr dingbats

          “Doesn’t sound like your field, but maybe it is. Anyway, it’ll help make for key money.”

          “Key money…”

          “Yes, you know what that means? Maybe now we can scrape together enough to get us a place.”

          “Right…gotta have key money for a…place…”

          “Sure, that way we can get things back to normal. You know, just to get us settled and reorganized around here. I never want to go through a move like that again.”

          “If you say so—but let’s see how it goes first, okay?”

          “You’ll do just fine, Kenny, we’ve got total faith in you.”

          “Great, Moon. Well, I’d better get off before it gets too late.”

          “Better late than never—ahn, ahn, ahn…Seamus barks hi.”

          Pulling a straphanger downtown on CTA’s Archer Express bus the next morning gave me plenty of time to hash things out. Yeah, mass transiting—from wild west rustbucket to rust-belt spoils, pretty soon maybe trade cab runs for cab rides, score me some decent threads…go from left brain to a little more right, visualize the verbal, verbalize the visual—less stuffy sosh, more sophisticated sell; scrap the terminology and jargon, learn the lingo, can the dog-eared scratch paper and bring on the Selectric IBM. Forget the reeling, build yourself a killer reel. Look, listen, ask intelligent questions, pay rapt attention. Think bigger, picture brighter, cash in the per diems, dump the day by day.

          Really, throw Marquette Park headbanging over for a more Michigan Avenue frame of mind. That’s the ticket: pay those bloodsucker meter maids off, turnaround the squareback, once and for all. Help mom get back on her feet; key in on that Moon mission, make sure everything gets rightly squared away. So what’ll it be—a Flash Gordon/ Superman returning to save the day, or a low-down louse divided against himself? Wake up and smell the bus fumes, noodnik, damn straight

          Such drowsy phantasms and rainy daydreaming carried me through a couple of bus route transfers and a damp trudge across the Michigan Avenue Bridge, wincing at the tire whine on steel-grilled surfaces, freezing collar up on a plaid-lined trench coat I’d left behind long ago. Lake-whipped winds swirled through Pioneer Court—where Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable built Chicago’s earliest cabin structure in the 1700s—as I revolved through Equity Center’s doors, reporting to the security desk for a first day’s merging into FBC’s indubitably faster lane.   Equity Center

         “We like to call it the Iniquity Center.”

         “Iniquity…that’s a good one,” I said, as we gathered about what appeared to be my assigned office, or at least the long vacated number into which a facility manager had  led me, clipboard and floor plan in hand. Desk, swivel chair, drawered console and bulletin board—otherwise the room was as blank as clean sheet of typing paper.

          “No, that’s a bad one, sport…as in wickedly bad…”  

          “Well, it sure seems to have its dark side,” I replied, looking out upon the glowing Wrigley Building across Michigan Avenue, and the cab zone I had trafficed in mere hours before. “I mean, window-wise.”

          Having navigated FBC’s personnel shoals upstairs, health plan to stock options, I was ushered into my own mid-floor office with deadpan ceremonial fanfare by that 16th floor receptionist, Andrea Dudic, who’d earlier blown me off. Before I could settle into an upholstered swivel chair, two fresh department colleagues popped in to greet and be known.

          Associate creative director Bob Gelvart—he of Northwestern’s Medill School, sat himself on the corner of my large walnut desk, tossing me a signed copy of founder James Forrester’s autobiography and an agency handbook of creatives’ workflow and protocols. Then Lacey Abbott-Tanzer, account manager by way of a Stanford MBA, piled client project particulars atop my inbox. Both smiled and probed as to where I’d been and how I got in here.

          “Lock of Ages, huh,” Gelvart asked, tossing back his wavy auburn forelock as he flipped through my loose-leaf excuse for a ‘book’. “Playing off a Christian hymn over 200 years old—that’s your speed?”

          “Well, no—that was just off the top of my head, I’m kinda new at this…”

          “You mean, the Rock of Ages, where Toplady sheltered from the storm, don’t you,” added Lacey Abbott-Tanzer, a dimple-faced former Wolverine cheerleader, bright blond Greek turned quantic geek, in an incarnadine pantsuit. “How… quaint…”

          “Okay, people, that’s enough with the fraternizing already,” Ralph Desman peeked into the office door on his way to the steno pool. “Let’s get down to work…”

          “Time to hit the gas pedal, speed,” Gelvart smiled, rebuttoning his brown corduroy jacket, as he escorted Lacey out to the long runnered hallway. “I’ll be looking for some rough drafts by lunchtime.”

          “Yes, hope I’ve given you enough input to get started,” said the account manager, over her shoulder. “Give me a jingle if you have any questions, ciaosy.”

          “Thanks so much, I’ll be giving it my best shot…”

          “Better you than me,” Gelvart smacked. With that, they were already gone.

          “They’re just testing you, man,” Larry Castalone said in passing. He was a recent art director hire, transplanted from Parsons and Cooper Union, now working up thumbnails, comps and storyboards in the office right next door, ostensibly my partner in organizational line. “I’m seeing it never stops here. Why do you think they stack those next-up portfolios outside my door?”

          I closed my door behind them, then paused to soak in the wicker-walled office, the Wrigley Building perspective out my window, on where I’d in fact come from, looking down on where I had just been. But, to work, sucking down some cold Mr. Coffee and tuning my brittle little radio into some new ‘City to City’ by Jerry Rafferty, then ‘Factory’ by The Boss.

          Slow to start, I seemed to get the hang and style of things: mailers and sales fliers for Jorvan Hair Care, product sheets for Alcor-Smith water heaters, brochure copy for Roadliner bicycles, packaging for Starway Appliances, tech specification folders for Great Lakes Tool & Die. Copy drudge and grunt work, to be sure, but Gelvart seemed to be buying my submissions with only minor corrections and revisions, and the per diem bennies were well worth the Archer Avenue commute.

          Shelf tags, display signage, table cards no end on drop-deadlines: Still, I was before long word-count fitting to Castalone’s layouts and designs, writing to his type wraps and overlays, digging into points, picas and justifying; faces, glyphs and fonts, factoring in the leading and kerning on his double-truck magazine inserts.

          So far, so fair enough: I was learning on FBC’s dime, making a bit of payback and folding money—and even spells of lousy weather didn’t rain down on my little parade, for it looked like I no longer had to wheel through it to keep a cab meter spinning, a trip sheet fat and full. Plus prolonged collateral concentration took my mind off everything else.

sr dingbats

          “I’ve hoped and prayed for teaching, but if business is your choice—thank God there’s always good work in Chicago…”

          “Yes, mom, let’s see where it goes. The important thing is you’ve got to keep getting better…we need you more than ever around here.”

          Sad to say, the short-lived rally was headed south. I had returned to Francisco Avenue later than usual, after a week or so of non-stop pounding on my designated Selectric’s Courier typeball. Bob Gelvart seemed essentially content with my content, relieved to no longer being saddled with the peon assignments, free to pull together his surreptitious new campaign. Lacey Abbott-Tanzer continued feeding my inbox with client input, lightly red penciling my efforts on the margins, with notes and comments betraying a slightly sardonic side, yet proving helpful nonetheless.

          No kibbitz was good kibbitz on the Ralph Desman front, whom Larry Castalone conjectured was tidying up his production reviews and pumping down the Gelusil in anticipation of Executive Creative Director, Phillip Richmond’s return from a development conference at the New York/Madison Avenue office. Per diems were as advertised, and I felt I was catching up with FBC’s pace and expectations, back of mind surmising that my mother’s improving vital signs pointed toward a steady recovery. But such healing wasn’t to be bedded on faith itself.

          “I’ll be just fine, son,” she coughed, lying still on the living room sofa, wrapped in several layers of blankets and comforters, floor model TV going, with the sound turned down. “I only pray this new job of yours will help clear your mind of the muddle you’ve brought back with you from out west—with the personal matters and such.”

          “I don’t know, mom,” I sighed, straightening the face cloth on her forehead. “There’s plenty of loose ends on that front…things I’ve still got to figure out.”

          “Uh-huh, just remember, don’t I know you need somebody to push you—not nudge you, but shove you sometimes…one mother like me is enough.”

          “There is no mother like you—that’s why you’ve got to get back on your feet for us, real good and strong, okay?” I glanced over at the old Zenith console, ‘Streets of San Francisco’ starting up again with the aerial swooping over Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, an episode featuring a cop chase through the Marina District, then expat Troubles brewing in the Irish bars.

          “Like you say, let’s see where it goes. And another thing—if you keep being caught between two little angels, maybe you deep down don’t want to fly with either one.”

          “Aww, mom, don’t even be thinking that…”

Care for more?

Chapter 40. Ups and downs, meeting 
at the highest level while vital signs 
sink below. Then upper crust exposure 
results in a critical turning of the page…