I’ve been writing for the Reader for so long that lots of you may think I’ve always been writing for the Reader.
Like, you know, I hopped out of my mother’s womb with a pencil in my hand and a question or two for the doctor about TIFs.
Not true—I didn’t have a pencil in my hand.
But as hard as this may be to believe, there was a time when the Reader was in existence, and I didn’t write for it.
That time is called the 70s—the greatest decade that ever existed. As even most millennials will grudgingly concede.
The Reader was created in 1971. As you can see, we’re celebrating our 50th anniversary. But, no, I was not there at the start.
Back in ’71, I was a teenager, sitting in my bedroom, playing air guitar to Santana, writing in my diary, and obsessively following my beloved Bulls. Which sort of sounds like what I did this weekend.
On a tangent . . .
Hey, Chicago frontrunners, this year’s Bulls team looks like the real thing. Feel free to jump on the bandwagon.
Back to the Reader . . .
My point is that the first decade went by and I didn’t contribute one article to the Reader. Hold it! Not true. I suddenly recall that in 1977—when I was 21—I composed a 400-word, unsolicited masterpiece on Sally’s Stage, a long-out-of-business restaurant on Western Avenue where the waitresses used to roll around on roller skates.
I dropped it off at the old Reader office on Grand Avenue. And to my utter disbelief, they not only published it but paid me about $35.
And just like that I was a published author—like Hunter S. Thompson! One of my heroes back in the day.
I like to think that I spent the better part of the 70s preparing for my future livelihood as a Reader writer. That means reading books, writing in my diary, and walking around Evanston, my hometown, imagining how I’d write about politics if I got my chance.
Definitely planned to write from a leftie’s perspective. That much was for sure. Always been a leftie. Probably always be one. Can’t see that changing.
Back then, I’d pick up the Reader at the old Baskin-Robbins ice cream store on Dempster in Evanston. I imagined myself living in Rogers Park or Hyde Park or wherever Reader writers lived and being this slightly jaded know-it-all who would tell you what was really going on. As opposed to what the powers that be said was going on. Revealing the lines between the lines, so to speak.
A few years went by after that Sally’s Stage story before the Reader published my next epic. I kept busy. Worked at various papers. Moved around the country. Wound up at the Chicago Reporter back when it was a real publication, as opposed to whatever it is these days.
The Reporter’s publisher—John McDermott—carried on a bread-breaking tradition he learned from his days in the civil rights movement. On Fridays, he’d bring the staff to the conference room, and we’d eat lunch together. And now and then he’d bring in a guest to join us for an off-the-record conversation.
One Friday that guest was Bob Roth, then the Reader’s publisher. I believe it was the summer of 1983. Roth walked in wearing shorts and flip-flops. I’m thinking—all right, my kinda guy!
A few months later I started writing for the Reader on a regular basis and I haven’t stopped since. So, thank you, Bob Roth—and Mike Lenehan (my first editor). I’ll always be grateful.
The Reader was a great place to work. A big, fat publication with ad money pouring in. They used to give us Christmas bonuses! Back then I was making about as much money a year as a beginning Chicago Public Schools teacher. That was enough for me. And, best of all, they let me write what I wanted to write!
From time to time I’d have the following exchange, generally with some older North Shore type . . .
North Shore: Don’t you wanna work for the Tribune?
Me: Do you see anything remotely like what I write in the Tribune?
North Shore: No.
Me: Then why would you think I’d want to work for the Tribune?
Alas, the good times didn’t last. Don’t want to overwhelm you with a recitation of our woes. Boils down to this . . .
Roth and his partners sold the Reader to a crew who borrowed too much to buy it.
They couldn’t keep up with payments, wound up going bankrupt, and we were taken over by a hedge fund that brought in various consultants to oversee the investment.
I remember one of those consultants—an old Tribune guy, by the by—telling me, you don’t really believe that TIF stuff you’re writing.
And I’m like—well, ugh, actually I do.
After that I told my wife, get ready for me to get fired.
And yet . . . that consultant is long gone. And I’m still writing for the Reader.
A few years back, Eileen Rhodes, who represented our then-latest owners, took me out for breakfast. We had a conversation that went a little like this . . .
Me: You’re not gonna give me grief when I write something that rips Mayor Rahm?
Eileen: Mayor who?
Well, it wasn’t exactly those words. But that’s the gist. So, thank you Eileen for sticking to your word and leaving me free to write what I want to write. And thank you for bringing in Tracy Baim and Karen Hawkins, who are now running the show.
And on I go. Still free to write what I want. Still trying to reveal the lines between the lines.
Let me close by again saying Happy Anniversary to everyone at the Reader.
Against all odds, we have survived, to paraphrase Gloria Gaynor.
I’m eager to see what the future will bring. As you can tell, I’m in it for the long haul.