“You shouldn’t be here,” a red-haired woman in shorts says to her friend in a suit. “You work for Arthur Andersen.”
“So? Arthur Andersen doesn’t commit any corporate crime.”
“Well, you know, you wouldn’t want to make your clients mad.”
The two are standing in the rain outside the James R. Thompson Center, waiting for Crackers, the TV Nation mascot now on a cross-country crime-fighting tour. The sole lure for the growing crowd was an eight-second plug on Friday’s show. People arrive on the corner and say, “Is this where it’s happening?”
There are graying couples, determinedly alternative teens, activists selling newspapers and passing out flyers, and die-hard fans of Michael Moore, the host of the leftish newsmagazine. The rain streaks the letters of one guy’s homemade sandwich board, which reads “Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken–Jr.” Some women wave sticks attached to paper plates on which they’ve scrawled “Crackers #1” in fluorescents. A couple of people are sweating in costumes–a bloodhound and a Woodsy the Owl waving a “Dow = Dioxin” T-shirt.
The TV Nation truck–actually a big, tan Winnebago with a flashing red light on the dash and plastic signs taped to the sides–finally arrives. Despite the directions of the woman who emerges from the truck with a megaphone, the crowd surges into the middle of the street. The few police on hand try to direct traffic, growling as they corral stragglers. Finally most of the mob–now swollen with passing tourists and yogurt-spooning suits on lunch break–coheres on the Daley Plaza side of Randolph.
The crowd, numbering in the high hundreds by the time Crackers emerges, breaks into an enthusiastic chant: “Power to the poultry!”
The seven-foot chicken with purple cape and gloves and a TV Nation logo embroidered on his fuzzy yellow chest isn’t really built for speech. He has to shove the microphone into his beak to address the crowd. “Don’t be chicken about corporate crime!” he shouts, provoking cheers in response. “You know what corporate crime is, don’t you?”
“Evil!” a woman yells.
A guy with lank yellow hair and a beard waves a small American flag and echoes the words on his sign: “Save us, Crackers!”
“The Staley workers are the real superheroes,” Crackers answers, referring to the Decatur strike against the A.E. Staley corn-processing company. “I’m just a guy–uh, I’m just a chicken.”
Crackers then attempts to call Moore, who’s represented by a cellular phone held up to a megaphone, but this produces only a squeal of feedback and a rumor that he was spotted hanging out at Randolph and Dearborn.
Crackers moves quickly to his main task of collecting people’s corporate-crime tips. “Everything you report goes in here!” he shouts, waving a battered, rather uninspiring spiral notebook. A cameraman leans over his shoulder to film the speakers he chooses from the crowd. Many people have come prepared, waving rain-wrinkled sheets of paper for associate producer Tia Lessin to collect.
One guy mentions First Chicago’s $3 teller fee, and Crackers declares that service fees of any kind are one of his favorite targets. “I really hate banks,” he says, reminding the crowd of his effort to limit bounced-check charges in Pennsylvania.
A woman goes into a tirade about the complexities of Ameritech’s voice-mail fees. A guy complains that the import company where he worked never gave him his last paycheck. Another guy waves one of Jewel’s “preferred customer” discount cards and says, “Jewel keeps track of everything you buy. It’s horrible because they sell these lists around the country!” He starts shouting desperately, “It’s evil! Evil!”
The guy with the “Save us, Crackers!” sign gets the mike and says, “Many people lost food–lost their lives in the heat wave! And it’s because of Com Ed! We need you to help us, Crackers! They’re a monopoly, and it…it seems that they’re oppressing us!”
“Crack Com Ed! Crack Com Ed!” the crowd chants.
“The Chicago Tribune is setting up a monopoly!” yells someone. “They’re buying up other news outlets and suppressing free speech!”
“My cable’s been cut off five times since I moved from Lincoln Park to Rogers Park–and I was charged a service fee every time!”
“What about the price we have to pay for beer at ballparks and Navy Pier?”
Lessin, bullhorn tucked under her arm, explains to me that none of these suggestions will be acted on. Crackers won’t be leading a march to First Chicago, invading Jewel, or laying siege to Com Ed. His agenda was determined long before the crew rolled into town. “We may use some of the crowd’s suggestions on the air, but we’re not taping a segment here,” she says. “We went to Saint Louis and took on a lead smelter there–that whole piece will probably get aired. And then we had a meeting with the Staley workers that will probably go on too.”
It isn’t clear that there’s much follow-through even after a segment airs. I ask Crackers about the Pennsylvania bank-reform bill. If the show stays on the air, will he keep tabs on its progress?
“Oh, sure! Yeah!” he replies perkily. “Uh, it helped a lot that we were able to find a friendly legislator.” He turns away to talk to a child in a dirty yellow rain poncho, then disappears into the Winnebago.