Cop and Writer

Michael J. McInerney, the copper who wrote that piece on Cabrini-Green, didn’t like it either. “I thought the sentence structure was too simplistic,” said the dissatisfied author. “I think in the next one I’ll use more rhetorical tropes. I want to razzle-dazzle the readers with more sophistication.”

A lot of people around the project object to “Moonlighting at the Green,” which the Chicago Tribune Magazine called an “essay” and ran in mid-July. Our problem with the piece is that it indulged everyone’s worst preconceptions.

McInerney presented Cabrini-Green as “a place where wild animals roam and devour weaker organisms” and as “this desert of ingratitude” and as “this community of frozen rage” whose young denizens have “preyed on the rest of society” with an “exploratory rapaciousness.”

“Outside,” wrote McInerney, “your body quivers as you position your right shoulder toward the building you think might be harboring an assassin.” His big hope is to survive. “When two teenagers dressed in dark ragged clothes approach you, your hand drops to the holster to unstrap the safety belt.” McInerney is obsessed with the summer evening in 1970 when two policemen were gunned down from a Cabrini-Green high rise.

“I’ve heard guys say he was not even on the job at that time,” we were told by a policewoman who is at the project every day. (Correct: McInerney wasn’t.) “Sure, you empathize. But you can’t be top-heavy with that kind of thing. It makes you nonfunctional.” This officer thought McInerney trafficked in stereotypes. “Labels should not be put on people; they should be put on bottles.”

We asked the author what most cops thought. “The only negative reaction was they didn’t like my showing people who were afraid,” said McInerney. “We control people by showing how tough we are. I’m sorry I let the photographer put in that picture of me putting on the bulletproof vest. I was an object of derision for that.”

Live and learn. McInerney cashed the check and moved on to the next piece. “My goal is another article for the Tribune, and I’ve got five columns about the length of Mike Royko, and I hope to parlay all that into a regular column three days a week. ‘On the Beat’ or ‘Off the Beat’ or ‘Tales of the Streets.'”

What kind of money are you looking for? we asked him. “Hopefully, at least 300 a week,” he said. “So I won’t have to moonlight at Cabrini-Green.”

McInerney also substitute-teaches in the public schools (he intends to write about teachers he’s met there: “They’re stupid, they’re dumb, they dress like slobs, they’re an insult to the human race”) and says it’s because cops like him can’t live on their salaries anymore that he takes these lousy second jobs. “That’s why I’m trying to establish my roots in society as a writer and getting my PhD at the University of Chicago in sociology. So I don’t have to stay in more than another 8 years [he’s been on the force 12 already, and 20 get him a pension]. And if I make a hit with a book or movie, I’m quitting tomorrow.

“I know the streets of Chicago,” said Officer McInerney. “I know the different social strata. And I can bring some description, some raw reality, some Machiavellian insights . . .

“Are you familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance?” he wondered. “Here’s the thing. People thought, up until about ten years ago, that what you did was the result of your thinking. Now they’re beginning to think that your thinking is the result of what you did. The policeman has to go out and put his life on the line to protect other people’s property, other people’s money. In order to do that, he has to say to himself, this is what’s really most important. That’s why policemen put on an ultraconservative aura. Basically, they’re made conservative by the environment. They have to go to the right of Attila the Hun. They have a mentality worked out that’s hard, tough, and snarly. There’s no such thing as an Officer Friendly. It’s an oxymoronic saying . . .

“Let me give you an example,” said Officer McInerney. “I was there in the riots in 1968 on the other side. I was what you’d call a flaming radical liberal. You remember Ramparts magazine then? That was my bible.”

A few years later the rad-lib joined the blue. A brother was already on the force and McInerney wanted to write and go to school and he didn’t have any money. So anyway . . . “I never saw myself as a policeman,” he told us. “A lot of guys dream of it all their lives. I had a lot of nightmares . . .

“I was a little cantankerous in the police academy because I was taking on my instructors and fellow cadets on societal programs. But after I’d been on the streets about five years, I realized if you wanted to survive, you had to look on everyone out there as a potential enemy who can hurt or kill you. Plato, Einstein, Schweitzer would think the same way or they’d have to get off the police force.”

We supposed that’s what they would have done.

“We don’t know,” said McInerney. “If they had a wife and a family to feed . . . Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru–we don’t know what they would have done. But if they’d stayed on the police force, they’d have turned to the right.”

Said Officer Michael McInerney, “I’m not a normal person anymore. I don’t even like people anymore. I used to be a gregarious, outgoing extrovert.”

McInerney, who’s 44, is a family man–“two kids of my own, two step-kids, and one wife.” His wife, he said, “was raised in the Humboldt Park ghetto on the corner of Palmer and California, the drug center of the world, which will be my next article. I’m coming up with a community theory that has never been shown on paper. Before, community has always been a place that would hold people together and help them adjust to the city. Now I’m saying just the opposite. That the community out there in the Shakespeare District where I was a policeman for eight years is showing them how to kill each other. It’s a self-destructive ecosystem out there.”

As it happens, McInerney’s wife moved to a farm in Wisconsin to save her kids from Chicago’s public schools. “She’s putting tremendous pressure on me right now to quit and move, but I can’t move because I can’t lose the medical benefits and she thinks I can sell pumpkins by the road. She wanted to go so I said ‘go’ and now I want her back.

“I’m living alone. I miss them a lot. But I don’t spend my time at the tavern. I come back and write and read, writing maybe two hours a day, reading maybe eight.” We told McInerney he doesn’t have time for a family. “My wife says it all the time, if we get back together you can’t do all that stuff. So I don’t know what we’re going to do.

“She joined some I-hate-men women’s group and enjoyed the new powers of a woman. She picked up a new vocabulary to tantalize herself, and I think she dreads putting herself under a household where male dominance is likely to ensue.”

Would it? we asked.

“No,” he said gloomily, “because I never did it before. She belongs to some type of women’s network and they all took that book as a bible–Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. And every other word in her vocabulary is from that book. I told her it’s pop sociology and it doesn’t square with the real world. But it gives her a structure. When she was 16 she was a Buddhist and she went to Hawaii. So that’s the type of person I married.”

McInerney had mentioned a novel. He’s writing it now. “It’s on sexual abuse and satanic worship in Uptown. Which is a coming problem in Chicago. I’m going to be in on the ground floor. I’m going to scare people out of their minds.”

And a movie? “It’s going to be a comedy,” he said.

Manhandling the Sun-Times

Since 1983, the Sun-Times has gone through five editors, three publishers, and three owners, although it has lately felt like more. If we thought two years ago that Robert Page was buying the paper from Rupert Murdoch, we were wrong. A New York investment banker named Leonard Shaykin turned out to be the one who ruled the roost, and behind Shaykin is Equitable Capital Management, the investor that put up most of the money.

Donald Piazza, the paper’s dour chief operating officer, went around Page to persuade Shaykin of the publisher’s unsuitability. In response, Crain’s Chicago Business tells us this week, Page apparently tried to go around Shaykin, by asking some of his powerful Chicago friends to appeal directly to Equitable on his behalf.

They failed. Page moved out last week and was replaced by general manager Charles Price, who is now acting publisher. Page was a publisher who often acted as his own editor. Shaykin is an investment banker who began acting as his own publisher and liked it. Journalism can be infectious that way.

But it’s clear what rules at the Sun-Times. Debt rules. A Fortune article early this year laid out the oppressive terms of leveraged buyouts. “The trademarks of an LBO in its early years are massive debt, enormous interest payments, and bottom-line losses. . . . In fact trench warfare aptly describes the environment at any buyout company. The enemy is the debt, a monster putting enormous pressure on every commander.”

Brian Wruble, head of Equitable Capital Management, told Fortune the key to making an LBO work is a buyer (i.e., Shaykin) who sees to it management understands “they’re no longer building an empire–they’re building money.” Wruble hailed Shaykin, calling him “incredibly good at getting under the skin of management.”

That’s what Page quickly discovered. According to Charles Storch’s excellent Tribune accounts, about $50 million in cash flow was squeezed out of the Sun- Times the first two years Page published it. Page can’t be blamed for thinking he did wonderfully well. But he didn’t do well enough.

The odd thing is, Shaykin probably will find someone who wants the job; despite the debt, despite Shaykin’s poaching, and despite the dwindling number of newspaper executives in this country who are even familiar with competition, there’ll be someone who thinks, this is Chicago after all, where a second paper can work and I can make a reputation.

He or she will inherit a staff that has been through just about everything. We salute them all. They are an excellent group of journalists, and over the last five years the executives manhandling their newspaper have disserved them at every turn.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.