Chicagoland, Spertus Style, Traffic and The Midwest Work Ethic

Before I went to Chicago, my friend, Anthony Giacalone, told me: “Chicago is that iconic town that’s in your head when you think ‘American city’. It’s not vast and hectic like New York City, but it’s not provincial like Boston. And you can get a cab anywhere, anytime.” He was right. What a remarkable place! The architecture, like a necklace of glittering diamonds draped around the neck of sublime lake shore, stunned. When you come from a city like Charleston with its refined antebellum garden homes and walk Chicago’s wide boulevards of soaring steel and glass, you feel as if you’ve stepped through history from one era to another and maybe you have.

I have to sincerely and deeply thank the Spertus Institute, Chicago’s leading center for Jewish learning and culture, offering graduate degrees in Jewish Studies, Jewish Education and Non-Profit Management, for inviting me to the One Book/One Community program which featured my One More River this year. Beth Schenker, their program director, knows how to put a party together. We had phenomenal crowds, around eighty at one of our venues, and they were informed, engaged, and appreciative.

But the truly remarkable part of the size of the crowds has to do with Chicago traffic. Every time we stepped out of the city or tried to roll into it, the traffic beat Manhattan and Boston’s combined! The hour, the day of the week didn’t seem to matter. There were rows and rows of vehicles snaking slowly either into or out of the city virtually all the time. One of our drivers told us you could leave Chicago at two in the morning and wind up in a jam.

So how to explain the size of my crowds? I have to credit the programs Spertus offered leading up to my talks, showing the film Shalom Y’all with a discussion following by the superb Rabbi Capers Funnye and hosting a book talk by the insightful Rachel Kamin, Director of the Gray Cultural and Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. There was also provided a brilliant study guide created by Spertus’ Lisa del Sesto. Talk about warm-up acts!

Spertus put Stephen and I up at The Standard Club, a private club established in 1869 by Chicago’s German Jews, which exudes both in its structure and service a rare old world charm and attention to detail. Think marble steps, wrought iron balustrades, intricately coffered ceilings, wood paneled walls, a dining room to rival The Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge and you’ll have it about right. It’s in the financial district of The Loop and across the street from the Federal District Court, which proved convenient as Stephen has an old student, his best student from his days teaching law school, who is now a federal district court judge, Judge Sam Der-Yeghiayan, who we were most excited to see in Chicago as he’d promised a tour of the federal court, his chambers, and as a special bonus, he happened to be hearing a criminal case during our stay to which we’d been invited as observers.
So there we were, nested in the warm embrace of the old world with a view out the window of the shining, spanking new. We open the curtains of our room and across the street is an office building. At eye level, a grey-haired lawyer sits working in his shirtsleeves, files piled high around him. It’s late on Saturday night, after we’d arrived and been taken out to dinner by the Judge. “He must be preparing for court,” I tell Stephen. “Yes,” says he, with a bit of a shudder. “Reminds me of how late I’d work back in Boston. . .”

Throughout our stay, we kept checking on this hard-at-work fellow. Every time we opened the curtain, no matter what the hour, there he was, sometimes in the lone lit office window (out of hundreds), plugging away. I get up at seven on Sunday morning to get ready for the folks at Anshe Emet on Chicago’s north side, and there he is, spinning in his wheeled office chair from one end of his long desk to the other. I get back around noon and there he is, still at it. When we leave for Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard at one, we check and he hasn’t yet had a break. We’re back around four thirty, after the Bears game, and the city’s emptied out. We breathe a sigh of relief. Our workaholic’s not there, although he’s left the lights on. We head out to grab some Italian at the legendary (amongst lawyers) Villages and when we return, we check on him just for fun. He’s there! Staring at a monitor. Still in shirtsleeves. I’m thinking when he wasn’t there before, it must have been a quickie bathroom break or maybe he was that harried guy downing a pizza next to us at the bar at the Villages. Monday morning, Monday afternoon, Monday night, Tuesday morning, same story. By this time, I’m wondering: does he live at his office? A nasty divorce in progress, maybe, and a wife that’s kicked him out? No place else to go? Or is this indeed a man preparing for a very important case? Whose life and liberty depends on him? Is it a tax case that could ruin a business and family? Or a murder that cries out in the night for resolution? Whose angel of justice is he anyway?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer. What I do know is that although Stephen worked throughout his Boston legal career like a dog til ten p.m. most nights (ok, he didn’t start til eleven or twelve in the morning, so what?), this Chicagoland lawyer is the hardest working sun of a gun I’ve ever witnessed. I raise my hat and glass to him and to the values of a Midwest whose work ethic could inspire such devotion to cause and career.

Unless he just couldn’t face the traffic.

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