End of the Road

The Chicago River paralyzed the center of the city and inspired a T-shirt when it flooded into an old coal tunnel near Kinzie Street last week. But no one died. Last Thursday there was a much-less-reported-on accident in which municipal negligence might again have been a factor. A taxicab rolled off a dead-end street into the river at 2:30 in the morning, and a young actor lost his life.

In neither case is the loss to Chicago easy to quantify. Rick Roman was only 26, and he left behind a thick notebook that raises more questions than it answers. It is full of notations such as these: “Name for Bands: Bloody Sputum, Minty Fresh and the Jive Amazons, The Dog That Bit Freddie’s Head, Official Corporate Position . . . ” “Famous Quotes: ‘We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.’ Einstein . . . ” “Useful Nonsense: Yeast Infections, Polyps, Dewey Decimal System, Toxic Waste, Miniature Golf . . . ”

The next day Roman’s father, girlfriend Vickie Tarbis, and fellow actor Adam McKay drove to the desolate spot near Elston where Blackhawk suddenly stops at the water’s edge. For about half an hour their videocamera played across the landscape, now focusing on the 12-foot drop to the river, now on the street’s pitted surface, now on the blue police barricades that had been set out too late to be useful. Then they shot through the windshield of McKay’s moving car to capture the illusion–which we can attest to after visiting the scene and which apparently betrayed Roman that rainy night–that Blackhawk, which resumes on the far side of the river, runs on unbroken.

Roman and McKay were members of Victim’s Family, the house team of Del Close and Charna Halpern’s ImprovOlympia. “He was the best one on my team,” says Halpern. Four years ago they’d been students in Philadelphia. “I was going to Temple and doing stand-up at open mikes,” McKay told us. “He was going to Temple part-time and mainly driving horse carriages and doing stand-up in this two-man routine he was in called Gus. One day he said, “I’m going to Chicago,’ and he left.”

A year went by and Roman came back and got McKay. “I was tired of the university system and getting tired of stand-up, which is easy to do. He told me there’s this thing in Chicago where you can do whatever you want. Improv. I’d never heard of anything like it. So I said, all right, I’ll sell everything I have, I’ll sell my comic-book collection–I got ripped off on it, actually. And we drove out here.”

The last time McKay saw him, Roman was leaving rehearsal in his cab. He was going to drive a teammate home to Oak Park. Returning east, Roman apparently dropped off a fare near Elston and was trying to find his way back to the busy part of town when his car pitched into the river.

Last Monday Vickie Tarbis and Roman’s father tracked the cab to a south-side police pound. They stood outside the chain-link fence and studied it. The roof was smashed in. They imagined the cab tipping over and settling to the river bottom upside down.

“He wanted to start his own religion,” said McKay. “The Temple of Industrial Leisure. We both worked on it. There were some newsletters put out. He wanted to do a revival.”

McKay remembered a phrase from Thomas Wolfe that Roman valued: “Catharsis through the threat of chaos.” We asked McKay if it was any consolation that Roman had died in a manner consistent with his understanding of how the world actually operates.

“No, not at all,” McKay said. “That’s another thing I’m trying to figure out–how he died. Was it really a chaotic thing, or was it just a mistake, someone’s fault? But it shouldn’t have happened. That I know, and it makes it hard to accept. He was my best friend.”

Damned Reporters, Where Are They When You Need Them?

Last January 14 a couple of employees of Chicago Cable Television made a videotape of the old coal tunnel under the Chicago River, where silt seeping through cracks had risen up past their knees. The situation was ominous.

But according to the Tribune, the city bureaucrat the firm was used to dealing with had been shifted in a reorganization plan, and by the time company officials caught up with him a month and a half had gone by. The city did nothing about the crumbling tunnel for another month and a half, and then the wall collapsed.

How could this calamity have been avoided? Certainly the bureaucracy might have functioned more responsibly. Here’s another possibility. Suppose some mischief maker at Chicago Cable Television with a sense of urgency and a grasp of how to get the city that works to work had slipped a copy of the videotape into a brown paper bag and dropped it off–well, we can think of dozens of people who would have known what to do with it, but let’s say he dropped it off with that notorious whiner Walter Jacobson. And let’s say Jacobson showed it on television, nagging City Hall in his patented Chicken Little manner.

God save us from these media malcontents, the disgusted mayor would have muttered to himself, while ordering someone to look into the damn thing. And Chicago and its business establishment and American taxpayers would have saved themselves about two and a half billion dollars.

Com Ed’s Impacted Revenues

Even a huge public monopoly can fall on hard times. And this, says Edward Peterson, “corporate responsibility director” of Commonwealth Edison, is absolutely the only reason Edison isn’t funding the Chicago Reporter in 1992.

“Our financial situation is pretty tight right now,” Peterson told us. The problem is nuclear power plants that Edison hasn’t been able to make the public pay for. Last December, said Peterson, the Illinois Supreme Court “impacted revenues by $200 million” when it blocked a rate increase. And last week the court ordered refunds Edison had expected that will come to $230 million or more. Those kinds of dollars add up.

“That’s why we have to be cautious and skinny back our contributions,” said Peterson. He didn’t even mention–because how could Edison have foreseen?–the hundreds of thousands of dollars his utility’s eaten recently to restore power to the flood-drenched Loop.

The letter Peterson sent last month to Roy Larson, publisher of the Reporter, didn’t go into the gloomy specifics. But Peterson did plead poverty.

“Our Corporate Responsibility Committee has considered the possibility of making a financial contribution to the Chicago Reporter. After careful discussion, it was decided not to do so.

“Edison’s financial condition is under extreme pressure. As a consequence, it is necessary to hold the line on and even reduce traditional philanthropic giving. This means that it is virtually impossible for us to take on new commitments.

“I regret we are not able to help but I trust you will understand our position.”

Larson suspected that he understood Edison’s position only too well. Last summer the Reporter committed journalism at the utility’s expense. Cover stories in consecutive issues carried the headlines “Edison’s Reliability is Still in Doubt; Secret Pact With City Hides Answers” and “City and Edison Fiddle While Blackout Threat Grows.” A third major story was titled “Minorities Come Up Short at Comm Ed; Black Engineering Schools Ignored,” and there was also a sidebar, “Edison Plagued by PCBs.”

“It’s fairly obvious the conclusion you could draw,” Larson reflected. “I had heard indirectly–someone from our office not connected directly with the Reporter had called about the contribution and was told Commonwealth Edison had some problems with the articles.”

Larson mused, “I don’t know what they mean by “new commitments.’ It sounds like a form letter.” He said he’d checked, and Edison had given the Reporter from two to three thousand dollars every year going back at least a decade.

But Peterson assured us the Corporate Responsibility Committee never even discussed the Reporter articles. He’d barely glanced at them himself.

What did you mean by “new commitments”? we asked him.

“We have supported them intermittently through the years,” Peterson explained, although the Reporter’s records say otherwise. “We haven’t supported them the last couple of years. This year would have been a new commitment.”

We called the Reporter’s founding editor, John McDermott, and asked him how far back Edison and the magazine go together. McDermott said former Edison chairman Thomas Ayers was on the board of the Community Renewal Society when it established the Reporter some 20 years ago, and he thought that Edison had given annually to the Reporter ever since.

But he added, “I do know, wearing another hat as chairman of the City Club’s annual dinner, we had a very difficult time with them to support the dinner. They said they’d cut all their contributions by about half. It was a terrible year financially due to their legal troubles.”

The executive director of the Citizens Utility Board adds yet another perspective. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” says Susan Stewart. “The results of mismanagement are now starting to show.”