How cold was it in Chicago this winter? The politicians kept their hands in their own pockets.
Not a bad joke — though I think I first heard it with New Jersey substituted for Chicago. Works just as well. Works for just about any big city, really.
True, a large number of politicians from Chicago and its environs have been found guilty of corruption over the years. In my lifetime, four Illinois governors have gone to prison, two serving at the same time, which must be some kind of record.
When I was growing up there, the tolerance for those on the take was pretty high. As long as the potholes got fixed and the snow got plowed, who cared what tax dollars stuck to whose fingers?
For one summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I used a stick with a nail on the end to pick up garbage at Rainbow Beach on Chicago’s South Side. I placed the garbage in a canvas bag I wore around my neck.
You had to know somebody to get a job as good as that. And I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the city treasurer, Marshall Korshak, a real power broker who dispensed jobs by the hundreds, if not thousands. This was called patronage, and today it is illegal. Back then, it was called everyday life.
Years later, I became a newspaper columnist and railed about the evils of patronage. I even went to see Korshak. He had retired and did not, of course, remember that he once had given me a summer job.
I told him that I was, in a sense, grateful to him. After all, I could not have continued college without the money I had earned that summer. (In those days, summer employment was called a job, and you got paid for it. Today it is called an internship, and you are often not paid. This is called progress.)
I told Korshak that patronage is, nonetheless, unfair. Everyone should have an equal chance for every job, regardless of whom they know, I said.
Korshak smiled a weary smile. “Tell me something,” he said. “You did the job? You picked up the garbage?”
Of course, I said. I did a good job, a very good job.
“So what wasn’t fair?” Korshak said. “As long as the job got done, what wasn’t fair?”
Today you say stuff like that and you end up in an orange jumpsuit. But back then, it was the way of things. It was the Chicago way.
In a book that hardly anybody reads anymore but whose title almost everyone recognizes, Thomas Wolfe wrote the following:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame . . . back home to places in the country . . . back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Wolfe called his book “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
When people ask me where I am from, I automatically say Chicago, even though I have lived on the East Coast since 1984. In a few days, my wife and I will drive back to Chicago, where I will be a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics for the spring semester.
The idea is to recount the mistakes you made and the pitfalls you fell into over the span of your career so the students can repeat them.
I will be living in a rented house exactly 10 blocks from where I was born. I will continue to write my column.
In 1931, a notoriously corrupt Chicago mayor, William “Big Bill” Thompson, a Republican who counted Al Capone among his friends, made a politically fatal mistake.
Thompson was running against Democrat Anton Cermak, a former coal miner who was born in Kladno, Bohemia. Thompson’s campaign unleashed a barrage of ethnic slurs, including calling Cermak a “bohunk.”
This was not the Chicago way.
Cermak, who would win with 58 percent of the vote, responded with my favorite quotation by a Chicago mayor: “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”
That is Chicago.
And I don’t care what Wolfe said; I am going back home again.