Even when we hate it. I was in New Orleans over Christmas and I didn’t hear about Katrina. I heard about Katrina and Rita and Ike and Gustav and Betsy and Camille. Betsy was the earliest, 1965. Some say the worst. New Orleans is still cleaning up from Katrina. But because it has survived one hurricane after another, New Orleans not only can look itself in the eye but likes to. Like Chicago, it is a city with palpable self-regard.
As I write this, I’m the only one in the office. Having prevailed to the extent of making it downtown, I permit nostalgia to reign. There was a big snowstorm back in early 1972 and I was asked to write the weather story for the Sun-Times. The Academy Award nominees had just been announced. I wrote, “The lost picturesque snow has returned to Chicago and sits on the city like a French confection.” That much was easy. I checked “cloaks” in the yellow pages and called a place in Evanston that sold them. How’s business? I said. Whatever, said the lady. I continued, “In Evanston, Miss ————— —————-, at —————————-, a cloakworks, arranged her wares to encourage sales.” There were two nominated movies to go, Fiddler on the Roof and Nicholas and Alexandra, and they also yielded to my cleverness, though I have no memory of how. What I do recall is that once the story was edited, at least two of the movies had disappeared from my lead. Someone on the desk either missed the point completely or decided to save me from myself.
But let me tell you this, the opportunity to shove paper into typewriter and pound out stories like that is why some of us went into journalism and will die at our keyboards.
There was another big storm in 1979. This would have been the one that defeated Michael Bilandic and elected Jane Byrne. Not many of us made it out of our homes that morning, but I was part of a small group bundled against the furies waiting for a bus on Clark Street at Arlington Place. Evidently, one local response to that storm was to let everyone out of the asylums, because a shrieking lunatic joined our group and was soon ranting balefully at each of us. We huddled in terror, praying the bus would come.
It did not. But one of the handful of cars on the road swerved to the curb and the driver reached across the front seat and opened the door. The car was a Mercedes or BMW, and the handsomely top-coated driver — a man of qualities instantly apparent — asked if anyone would like a lift downtown. Of course, we all would, but before anyone could act the lunatic leaped through the yawning car door. The rest of us immediately shrank back. So off they went.
We stood there sadly. We would have really liked a ride. “That’s the last time he tries to do anyone a favor,” said someone. “I hope he survives,” said someone else.
This new storm is worse. The question Wednesday morning wasn’t whether the occasional motorist would stop and pick you up but whether he’d see you in time not to run into you. It was snowing again, visibility was terrible, and people were walking in the streets.