The Reader’s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
The thing that made me fall in love with the Reader way back in my bright college years of the mid-90s—1995 and 1996, to be precise—was the monthly “Bobwatch” column. Its tagline was “We read him so you don’t have to,” which pretty much said it all, but at the same time conveyed so little of the column’s brilliance: how expertly the pseudonymous Ed Gold tore apart Bob Greene’s daily columns on the front page of the Tribune‘s Tempo section, the detail and incisiveness with which he analyzed what made Greene so awful.
Gold delivered a mission statement of sorts in his inaugural column on January 26, 1995:
We pick up [Greene’s] column with a tingle of anticipation—how awful will it be? Will he content himself with another effortless sputtering of baby talk, lavished over one of his pitiful handful of themes and interests? Or will he reach some new benchmark of idiocy?
Over the next two years, he would pick out every bit of sentimentality and sanctimony and skewer it mercilessly and brilliantly in a way that most of us (especially if we were still college students slogging away at the campus daily) could only aspire to.
What was really impressive was his stamina. Did you ever try to read a Bob Greene column in the 80s or 90s? Nobody could tolerate that many newspaper inches about the long and bitter and extremely boring custody battle over Baby Richard (also pseudonymous). But Ed Gold could! He made it a joy to get in touch with our worst selves:
Bob Greene’s sympathy carries the same corrosive effect as praise from the Daily Worker did in the 1950s. Readers who would normally sympathize at the tragic unfolding of the Baby Richard case find themselves hating the child, based solely on the endless sweaty jig Bob insists on performing on his behalf.
The Reader graphics department nobly did its part by creating a pie chart to accompany every “Bobwatch” column that showed how much space Bob devoted to his pet topics. Baby Richard always had the biggest slab of the pie, but there were also regular slices for the 1995 Major League Baseball strike, Bob’s close personal friendship with Michael Jordan, his vapid musings from airport lounges and hotel rooms across America, his hopeless yearning for the Good Old Days of his Baby Boomer adolescence in Bexley, Ohio, and not much else. (Unfortunately, like a lot of the Reader‘s art from those days, the pie charts didn’t survive the transition to digital.)
I’d been making fun of Bob for years, on my own or with my high school friends, but the discovery of “Bobwatch” made me feel cool, because someone in a newspaper—forgive me, it was the 90s—was doing the same thing I was doing. Except of course he was funnier and cooler. (But still. Maybe “Bob Greene’s Diary,” the satirical poem I wrote about Bob’s 1964 diary, which he was crass enough to publish as a book sometime in the late 80s, really was as great as I and my writing partner in 12th grade creative writing thought it was. Alas, unlike “Bobwatch,” it is lost to the ages now.)
The reason I’m writing about “Bobwatch” today, aside from the fact that I have been looking for an excuse to dig it up since I started working here at the Reader, is that early tomorrow morning, between 5:48 and 7:03 AM, we will be able to see the first super blue blood moon in 150 years. That sounds more apocalyptic than it is—translated, it means that the moon will appear large because it is closer to the earth than usual (super), that it is the second full moon in January (blue), and that there will be a lunar eclipse that will turn it red (blood). Nonetheless, the apocalyptic nature of its name brought to mind “The Horror: The Final Chapter of Apocalypse Bob,” the final column of “Bobwatch,” in which Gold imagines Bob as a sign of the End Times. I’m not going to quote any more of it. Go experience its glory for yourself.
(Firsthand experience of being forced to read a Bob Greene column by some well-meaning older person who found it “inspirational” is not required. But, if you insist, here is a randomly-selected Baby Richard dispatch for you from the Tribune archives. Now imagine having to look at this crap every day—for years—on your way through the rest of the Trib‘s otherwise excellent Tempo section.)
Bob outlasted “Bobwatch” by nearly six years. His Tribune column was finally was taken away from him in 2002 as punishment for having had a sexual relationship 14 years earlier with a teenage girl. It started when she wrote him a fan letter. (And didn’t that just figure. “Bobwatch” had been onto him years before. This is also why it’s hard to find old Bob columns online unless you search the library archives.)
According to Michael Miner, who edited “Bobwatch,” it wasn’t much of a secret among Chicago journalists that “Ed Gold” was Neil Steinberg, who was then, as he is now, on the staff of the Sun-Times. After “Bobwatch” ended, he continued to write the “True Books” column as Ed Gold—even sometimes about Bob!—and sometimes even stories under his real name. That was before he became a Sun-Times columnist himself. And then, in 2006, the Reader‘s Mike Sula wrote a story called “Why I Never Read Neil Steinberg.” Technically, it was not an attack on Steinberg. It was a rant against the thieves who regularly stole his copy of the Sun-Times from his back porch which prevented him from reading Steinberg every day. Its ending hinted at another chapter in Reader history. But such is the great circle of life at an alt-weekly: one decade you’re mocking the big daily columnist, next decade you’re the big daily columnist. Or maybe it’s the great pie chart. Or super blue blood moon. Or something like that.