Classic Royko: The ups and downs of Frankie

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A call button for a long forgot about elevator found during demolition where the new Dillinger Museum will be located in Crown Point on November 12, 2014. | Jim Karczewski/Chicago Tribune Media Group

Editor’s note. Mike Royko had an eye for chronicling the trials and tribulations of the colorful characters other reporters failed to notice. Therein was the real Chicago. This Chicago Daily News column was included in the 1967 Royko collection “Up Against It.”

It wasn’t at all surprising to hear that a new crisis is threatening the career of Frankie the Elevator Operator.

He is about to be grounded again.

It isn’t the first time this has happened, but it could be the last.

Frankie is probably the most problem-prone elevator operator in Chicago.

Most of his problems can be traced to a terrible affliction: He is a Republican precinct captain. And he’s incurable.

This led to his first grounding nearly five years ago.

At the time, Frankie was operating the freight elevator in the County Building. He was reputed to be a capable pilot, never losing a piece of freight and nearly always going in the right direction.

He liked the freight elevator better than the passenger elevator because he met a better class of people and was less likely to run into a Democratic politician who might recognize him as a Republican and turn him in.

This was a constant threat because all County Building elevator operators are on the sheriff’s payroll — and the sheriff at the time was Frank Sain, a Democrat.

It was always a mystery the way Frankie avoided being found out and fired, but people who watched Sheriff Sain try to catch criminals said it was not too big a mystery.

Then one day it happened. Frankie was summoned to the busiest desk in the lawman’s office — the payroll department. He was told to take off his wings.

“You’re all through, Frankie,” they told him.

“How come?” said Frankie. “I’m getting the freight through on time, ain’t I?”

Sure, Frankie, you’re one of the best. But Matt Bieszczat says you got to go.”

This began Frankie’s long exile. He was marked by the curse of Matt Bieszczat, a fearsome thing. Bieszczat is the Democratic boss of Frankie’s ward and Frankie had somehow offended him, which isn’t hard for a Republican to do.

“I used to tell Frankie,” said his cousin, who owns a tavern near Ashland and Augusta, “not to get Matt mad. But he was always saying things bad about Matt.”

For months, Frankie wandered the corridors of the County Building and City Hall, hat in hand, trying to get back on a payroll. But no one would have a Republican with a Democrat’s curse.

“Maybe if you’d switch parties…” someone would suggest.

“Never,” cried Frankie, bristling at the thought of deserting the party of his idol, Big Bill Thompson.

His tiny figure could be seen in the back of the elevators as he rode up and down as a passenger, just to keep his feel for the trade.

Sometimes he’d sit in a dark corner of the press room and mutter about the curse. Other times he’d stand in the lobby and stare at the freight elevator light.

Then one day the exile ended. Richard Ogilvie, a Republican, swept into office by a vote or two. As fast as a Democrat could be ejected, Frankie was put back on the freight elevator.

“I’m the happiest elevator operator in the whole world,” he told his first passenger, a file cabinet.

But within a year another crisis came along, this one worse than the curse.

Word came that half the elevators were to be automated.

If he were a City Hall Democrat, there would have been no reason to worry about being replaced by a machine. Men and their push-button replacements live happily together in peace in City Hall. But Republicans do not have as much experience in such matters, so Frankie worried.

The operators dropped away, but a handful survived and Frankie was one. Even so, the strain showed. “I feel like I’m always flying in ack-ack,” he said.

Many months passed uneventfully and Frankie was riding high — until a few days ago.

Someone came around and told him that in several weeks he would not be working for the sheriff. The elevator operators were being taken over by something called the Public Buildings Commission, a big, faceless, bloodless thing that put up the Civic Center. And hereafter, all operators would have to be union men.

Then the union told him that he and the others hadn’t kept up their dues while working in their patronage jobs and they were out.

Frankie suddenly felt like a giant’s finger was on the down button of his life.

He has been rushing around yelling, “Fix, conspiracy, injustice,” but nobody is backing him up. If you can’t beat Matt Bieszczat, how are you going to take on a public commission?

The last report was that he and the other Republican elevator operators were going to ask the state’s attorney for help in their case.

But the state’s attorney is a Democrat.

Frankie would have a better chance if all of his cables snapped.

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