Carol Marin: Why Mary the Waitress is ditching Chicago

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Mary Gordon and her son Archie

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Mary Gordon is saying goodbye to Chicago.

Not because of the mayor.

“I voted for him,” she volunteers.

Not because of her alderman.

“Joe Moore is really trying in East Rogers Park where we live.”

And not because she dislikes the city.

“I love its diversity,” she says.


Despite all those affirmations, Mary is returning home to a tiny town in Northern Michigan to keep her younger kid out of the crossfire in a city where shootings are on the rise.

A single mother of two boys, she’s waitressed at a Lincoln Park pancake house for ten years. Everyone who knows her agrees, like the 1998 movie, “There’s Something About Mary.”

Ask Wall Street Journal Dave, who scours a stack of newspapers at the breakfast counter. Or Retired Firefighter Tom, who scans the Sun-Times beside his oatmeal. Or Halfway House Kerry, who loves politics and asked me to get him an autographed picture of then-state comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, whom he thought quite attractive. (I did.)

The place is Cheers minus the booze.

And Mary has been its soul.

She was just two, the 11th of 12 children, when her mother died. College wasn’t in the cards. But a smart, self-described dreamer, Mary absorbed the daily breakfast debates with a social worker’s equanimity, open to both the conservatives at the counter and the liberalism of Linda the Die Hard Democrat who managed the place.

Mary, the Libertarian, was Switzerland. Unflappable. Non-judgmental.

But tough judgments were required to protect her sons.

Emilio, 18, just entered the University of Illinois in aerospace engineering. Excellent test scores sent him to a selective enrollment Chicago high school. Scholarships and grants will pay for college. An admitted bookworm, he spent his childhood indoors.

“I’d hear gunshots, no big deal,” he says, but when a fellow student was hit in a drive-by shooting he remembers “how distraught our classmates were.”

Was he tempted to join a gang?

“My mother did not raise us like that,” he said firmly.

Archie, 13, is the extrovert. “I’m kind of just an outgoing person,” he told me.

“I started getting influenced by gangs, at the age of 11, when I started to go to the parks by myself without my mother.

“One little park … had an incident last year. A gang member … pulled a gun out and started clicking it … and trying to mess with us, my friend and I. We got out of there.”

Teenagers were shot at the McDonald’s two blocks away a year earlier. One killed. Archie was afraid to walk the dogs.

Back in 2004, things were looking up and Mary bought a small condo. But the market crash forced her to choose between paying the mortgage or buying food.

The recovery has been a boon to the rich but not to working people like Mary. Wealthier, safer neighborhoods are out of her reach with rents rising and property taxes set to explode.

“We could afford to lose a few hedge fund operators and be better for it,” said Ed Stuart, emeritus Northeastern Illinois University economics professor and one of Mary’s customers. “But she is the bedrock of this city.”

And the city’s collective loss on this Labor Day.


Follow Carol Marin on Twitter: Follow @CarolMarin

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