Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is . . . Anne Ford, who after 190 columns is bidding the project farewell.
I was going to write a profile of this guy whose name I can’t remember who was and possibly still is a private tutor. He was a very colorful guy. For some reason, I got really stuck. He was a great talker. But I couldn’t get myself to write this profile. In desperation, I thought, what if I edited all together his wonderful quotes, would my editor be interested in a Studs Terkel approach? From there, I floated the idea of it being a regular thing.
Sometimes I think of a person I’ve always wanted to talk to. Then I cold-call them. I run into people at parties and they happen to mention what they do. And I go, rrrooww. Like the firefighter. I was sitting next to him at a dinner party. I started asking very dumb questions, like do you slide down a pole? He said, no, that is a good way for people to fall through and hurt themselves.
Every so often, I would get pitched by PR people. They mostly—I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound like a jerk—didn’t have an idea of what the series was about and just wanted to promote their clients, like there’s a new president of a nonprofit. I’m sure this is a great person, but not the kind of weird, offbeat, interesting good talker I’m looking for. It’s really difficult to explain the kind of person I’m looking for. People have a hard time getting it. My friends would be like, I know a person who owns a jewelry boutique. And I’d be like, what’s there, what’s interesting?
I look for someone who does interesting stuff that is also very everyday stuff. A good example is this guy, we ended up calling him the metal detectorist. Everyone’s had the experience of losing a piece of jewelry, but what’s it like to be the person who’s always finding it? I look for someone who can tell you something interesting and new about ordinary life.
There was a really early one with this woman who was a burned-out matchmaker. Her name is April Abbott. I knew her because when I was in graduate school, she taught German to grad students. I knew she had a side gig, but I hadn’t talked to her in ten years. I called her up. She said, “I can’t talk to you, I’m burned out.” At first I thought, bummer, but then I thought, this is way better. She was really jaded and bitter. I still remember, she had this line, “Women would come in and say, ‘Oh, I’m so attractive, I spend so much time on myself, I’m so well-read, and I work out every day,’ and I would want to say, ‘Go fuck yourself.'” She didn’t have a single shit to give. It was amazing. This may have been the peak of Chicagoans.
I never got to that point. Ending the column had nothing to do with listening to people. It was having to come up with something so regularly, feeding the beast. I continue to be amazed at how much people will tell you if you ask. Terry Gross, who one day I will murder and replace, has a fantastic book. The title is All I Did Was Ask. It’s my life motto. I don’t think I have any special interviewing skills. It’s all being curious. If I had a really sensitive question for someone, I would save it till later in the interview, till I felt like we had a rapport. I would say, “If it’s OK to ask—,” I would couch it in such a way that if it was a sensitive thing, they didn’t have to talk about it if they didn’t want to. But they usually did. I wish there was some magic way for people to speak without repercussions for their jobs or relationships. That’s another reason people referred by PR people were guarded. They had a lot to lose. I like talking to people who don’t have that much to lose.
I had a guy turn me down to be interviewed in a really interesting way. He draws gay comics, explicit gay porn in comic form. I thought he’d be really interesting. He wrote back and he was like—I can’t remember how he phrased it, but he felt my approach was condescending, looking for people who were different and othering them. He disagreed with my entire approach. It stuck with me, because I don’t want to be that way. I want to empathize with people and find out what their lives are like. I don’t want to be, “look at this freak.” But I disagreed with him that I was doing that in the first place. It was a good caution.
I’m pretty proud that I’ve never had anyone come back to me and be upset. Usually they like how it comes together. They like how it sounds, like them but better, or more concentrated. I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I didn’t say that,’ or ‘You portrayed me wrong.’ I’m not Mike Wallace. If I don’t like someone, I don’t want to write about them. I’m never out to make someone look bad or expose them. It’s an empathy-driven project.
But there was this one poor guy, he’s a rigger, the person, who, at concerts, hangs all the big lights. He mentioned he’d worked for Barry Manilow at one point, and he said Barry Manilow was an asshole. There are hard-core Barry Manilow fans with Google alerts. One called him up pretending to be Barry Manilow’s lawyer, and he called me all freaked out. I felt really bad for him.
And there was this guy, Roger Billhardt, he’s a nude model. It turned out afterward his father’s name is also Roger Billhardt and I think he’s a lawyer. So if people were searching for his father, they found nude pictures of his son. So I think we did something with the Google algorithm.
One of my favorite ones is this guy, Gary Arnold, I interviewed with him about his experiences living with dwarfism. He likes to ride his bike around the city, but now that everyone has a camera, some total asshole will take his picture and put it on the Internet. He told me this freaking fantastic story that happened one time. The car stopped at a red light, and he pulled his bike out in front of it and started yelling, “Give me the camera!” It turned into a standoff. He said, “I never got the camera, but I wanted that person to be as pissed off as I was.”
When I look back over the columns, my big regret is that I did not do a better job of conveying the racial and economic diversity of Chicago. There is an appalling slant towards the kind of demographic you might refer to as NPR listeners. That’s not just my problem, it’s a media problem, a radio problem, an alternative newspaper problem. But that’s the only regret I have. It was really fun. I will miss talking to people and adding to my internal database of ways to experience the world. Also, I think someone should make me a book offer. But I will not miss that feeling of, oh my god, I gotta find somebody.
Some more of Ford’s favorites:
Othman Al Ani, Iraqi physics teacher and refugee, now on staff at the Iraqi Mutual Aid society
Michelet Boursiquot, veteran elementary school custodian
Linda Cassady, wheelchair user
Jennifer French, FBI special agent/wedding coordinator
Aaron Karmin, anger-management therapist
Nev Jones, DePaul doctoral student in psychology, founder of Hearing Voices
Nora O’Sullivan, freelance special effects artist