Years ago, I was combing through the Reader classified ads, looking for something to write about, when I noticed a boutique offering women’s shoes in large sizes for men. I toddled off to Elston Avenue and plunged into the world of cross-dressing, safe houses and secret dances.
After the story ran, I got an out-of-left field call from the other boutique in Chicago catering to cross-dressers, drag Gimbels to this store’s Macy’s, as it were. The owner demanded to know when he would get his due. How could I focus on one and not the other?
I’m sorry, I said, my goal was to describe a hidden subculture to readers who were completely ignorant of it, not list stores. Besides, I didn’t know about the place before. “Next time I write about the transvestite community,” I said, using a term that wasn’t derogatory back then, “I’ll include you.”
That was 22 years ago. The paper has never, to my knowledge, run another in-depth story looking at what is now called the transgender community, so in a sense I was true to my word. Still, that “What about me?” reflex is a common complaint, reflecting a misperception of the news, the belief that we’re some kind of social service where fairness demands all people and all situations be given equal attention, when actually we’re trying to offer news that’ll keep you ponying up quarters and clicks.
All of this came tumbling back Friday morning when the first email I got in response to my column about quixotic mayoral candidate Amara Enyia was this, which came whistling over the transom at 1:35 a.m. and which I read, rubbing sleep from my eyes, about 6 a.m. Friday. Since many communications and media sorts read this column, let’s play a game I’ll call Find-the-Spit-in-the-Soup. See if you can ID the sentence where Gerald Thomas goes off the rails:
“Hello Mr. Neil Steinberg,” he begins.
“I would like to introduce you to the only candidate in this race with the experience needed in this day and time to combat the violence our citizens of this city continue to face. Mr. Frederick Collins is currently serving as a 21-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. With all due respect sir to Ms. Enyia, Mr. Collins has a website, buttons, T-Shirts and literature currently being circulated throughout the city. We are the only campaign with a radio ad being played each and every Sunday on WPWX POWER 92.3 FM. According to election law, we are to be allotted the very same time you granted any other declared candidate. You can go to our website at . . . ”
There’s more, but I assume you stopped at “According to election law,” to guffaw, as I did, or at least shake your head in wonderment. So let me get this straight: If I don’t write about Frederick Collins then I’ll be breaking the law and . . . what? He’ll come by the newspaper and arrest me — he is a cop — and drag me away to columnist jail?
Maybe I’m missing out by generally avoiding political contests as an annoying buzz best left to others. There’s gold here. I’m not going to write about Collins, of course — my colleague Mary Mitchell already did so on Sunday. I suppose if he swears out a warrant for my arrest for breaking this imaginary law (his flack must have been thinking of the FCC equal-time rule that applies to broadcasters), I could point to her column, or offer up this one as a defense, if the rule applied to print, which it doesn’t. Heck, it hardly even applies to TV.
And really, is Chicago looking for a police officer to run the city? I would never be so self-punishing as to characterize the esteem or lack of which that cops may or may not enjoy, nor contrast it with their self-image. And while I shouldn’t be doling out advice to political candidates, if Collins is considering a slogan along the lines of “Vote For Me or Face Prison,” he might want to rethink that.
I should tip my hand lest people accuse me of hidden motives. The reason Rahm Emanuel is so unpopular is because he’s doing the hard things that need to be done, closing schools and cutting programs that can’t be paid for. There is no easy way he was going to try to dial back pensions for city workers and end up with cops like Collins cheering. “Sure, Sarge, I won’t be getting the money I was promised, but look at our improved civic solvency . . .” You can’t tear off the big bandages Rahm’s been ripping from Chicago without the city starting to howl.
For me, the classic mayoral opponent was Joe Gardner, the water commissioner who stocked his first campaign rally with gang members who then menaced the media trying to cover it. Though Collins’ guy invoking an imaginary law that demands his candidate be written about has to rank right up there. Memo to all candidates: Life ain’t fair.