Escape From Lincoln Park

Nothing makes us more uneasy than the tales of big-city journalists who escape to the country and find happiness. Life is always hard in the hinterland, but it’s also full of meaning and harmony. Ruddy, well-rounded children usually figure in the picture. Our own lives seem shoddy by comparison.

The book on our desk as we write is the just-out Bean Blossom Dreams, whose author, a former BBC producer and writer, lived in Lincoln Park with a globe-trotting photographer husband and infant daughter until they decided to chuck it. Sallyann Murphey paints a harrowing picture of life on Wilton Street: “Greg stared gloomily into the garden, a little patch of color in a row of concrete yards. . . . We paid premium rent, premium everything, to live in an area where she could never play alone outside, or go to a school with a cross-section of her peers. . . . She was still too young to hear about the dark souls who stalked Chicago’s streets waiting to snatch her happiness away from her. . . . We began to witness symptoms of ethical decay in everything from our commercial dealings to the stories I was asked to write.”

Shame on us. At age two our daughters played outside in an area Murphey might not have visited without a police escort. And now here we are, still slaves to asphalt. There they are, cleansing their souls on 42 acres of central Indiana.

It could have been any city, Murphey assures us. She knows her cities, having grown up in London and Paris. “Chicago is one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world. But cities have become very hostile places to raise kids.” On their way back from Europe in 1989 they stopped in London. “We looked at it as a possibility. It was every bit as problematical.”

They also visited her father, a former Paris correspondent for the Sunday Times now living in retirement in a 12th-century rock house in western France. The Dordogne River runs by his front door. “He looked totally happy. He said, “My only regret is I didn’t do it 25 years ago,’ which would have made him my age. It really stuck with us.”

So it came about that soon after they returned to Chicago, the Murpheys left. “I assumed my career as a journalist was effectively over, and I would find another life,” she tells us. “But as we were going through these growing pains I was unable not to put it on paper, and I offered a column to the local paper, the Brown County Democrat. I offered them a column called “Murphey’s Lore,” which was a city view of country life, and it was completely unpressed and great fun.

“I sent the columns to my father instead of letters. He had a literary agent staying with him for Christmas. He left the columns on a coffee table or by the toilet–I don’t know where he left them, but where she’d pick them up. And apparently she came clattering downstairs on Christmas morning waving the columns above her head saying “This girl must do a book!’ And she was a British literary agent, so she faxed that material to her colleague who worked for her in New York.”

A contract was signed, and Murphey set to work on her adventures, which bubble with lilting lore on planting times and animal tracks and country cooking. But what strikes home with us is Murphey’s candor about the power of modern appurtenances.

Although Murphey calls her final chapter “Simple Gifts,” she did not move to Brown County to embrace a plain Shaker existence. “I don’t envy our ancestors in the fall,” she writes, as she describes the ritual of cooking and canning. “We are now the proud possessors of a chest freezer, a state-of-the-art food processor, a juicer, and a peeling/coring machine. Twentieth-century technology is a wonderful thing.”

And end-of-the-20th-century technology is heaven on earth. It allowed her to leave behind not only the deep interpersonal connections of an armed robbery, but much human contact of any kind. A number of rustic Hoosiers have figured prominently in Murphey’s new life, especially in pulling Greg through an abscessed appendix that laid him low without a penny of health insurance. But what’s startling is the number of people she simply doesn’t face. To this day she has never met her literary agent, and she didn’t meet the editor of her book until it was finished.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this ten years ago,” says Murphey, speaking of her new life. “The technology wasn’t there to support it. We couldn’t do it now if we didn’t have the computer, the fax. Federal Express comes to our farm almost every day. Another piece of technology that’s very important is a portable phone. I was on the phone negotiating a deal with Greg with a company in London, and I had the phone tucked under my chin, and I was bending over pulling out the choke weed, tending my roses.”

But, we fret, 42 acres and a column aren’t going to be there for every beaten-down city journalist with a soul to save.

“But most people don’t want 42 acres,” Murphey shoots back. “That’s one reason we were able to buy it so cheap. Nobody wanted this much land. It may be a boat. Or it may be a little cottage near Seattle.”

Jon Burge Update

Police brutality in Chicago, which reached its nadir when charges of torture were taken more seriously by Amnesty International than either City Hall or the media, is the subject of a documentary that will air next Tuesday night on Channel 11.

Produced by the Community TV Network, The End of the Nightstick was picked up by P.O.V., the series whose initials stand for “point of view.” You can’t miss Nightstick’s–it’s that the police are a brutal occupying force in Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods. “On the whole, a terrifying and useful document,” wrote Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who saw an earlier screening.

The focus of the hour-long program is the grass-roots campaign led by the Task Force to Confront Police Violence to drive former police commander Jon Burge from the force. The show ends on a note of muted triumph–a recalcitrant Police Board finally calls a hearing, and Burge is fired in February of 1993, a full 11 years after Andrew Wilson allegedly was tortured while being interrogated about the murder of two policemen. This February the dismissal is upheld by chancery judge Thomas O’Brien. But as someone on camera to echo the point of view of the filmmakers (we don’t hear from anyone who doesn’t) reflects, “I don’t think because we don’t have Jon Burge on the police force we have liberation. I don’t think you can separate police brutality from general oppression.”

A slightly updated Nightstick might have come to an even gloomier conclusion–with Burge spotting an opening to get his job back and the attorneys from the People’s Law Office who’ve fought him for the last decade wondering if they’ll ever be paid for their time. “I’m substantially worried,” says attorney Jeff Haas.

The denouement of the Burge drama has been playing out in both state and federal courts. In 1989 a federal jury that heard Wilson’s civil suit against Burge, other officers, and the city returned the weird verdict that Wilson had been tortured and the city had an unwritten policy of torturing, but that Wilson hadn’t necessarily been tortured under this policy and Burge wasn’t necessarily his torturer. So Burge and the city both were cleared. But after Burge was fired, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the portion of the verdict that had cleared him and sent the case back to U.S. District Court for retrial.

Last March, as the two sides’ lawyers were about to begin negotiating a settlement, the city’s legal department dropped a bomb: the city was still willing to pay Burge’s lawyers’ fees, but because he’d acted outside his authority in torturing Wilson, the city refused to indemnify him for damages. Whatever sum of money–in seven figures, to be sure–Burge ever found himself having to pay Wilson and Wilson’s lawyers, he’d be on his own in paying it.

Burge’s attorney, William Kunkle, raced back to court with a new issue, a legal principle called judicial estoppel. He argued that the city had switched sides for its own convenience: first it aligned itself with Burge in federal court, insisting he’d acted in the line of duty; after both parties were exonerated it turned against Burge in the disciplinary proceedings, while at least promising to cover his damages; finally it reneged on that promise.

Kunkle wrote, “Under these undisputed circumstances, the City of Chicago clearly has deliberately manipulated the judicial system for its own advantage with a complete disregard for truth or for the integrity of the judicial system.” Again he asked Judge O’Brien to reverse the Police Board.

O’Brien took Kunkle’s argument seriously enough to ask for briefs. But last Monday he affirmed his earlier ruling upholding the Police Board. In short, Burge does not return to the police force; but neither do he and Kunkle have any incentive now to settle Wilson’s suit. The city will pay Kunkle as long as that federal litigation continues; Burge faces a debt in the millions of dollars as soon as it ends.

Furthermore, Burge can now appeal O’Brien’s ruling on judicial estoppel. “It’s easier to win on legal issues than factual ones,” Haas observed.

The People’s Law Office hopes to restore the city to Wilson’s federal suit, if not as a policy-making codefendant–which it was before–then as Burge’s wayward indemnifier. A brief arguing this position (and ripping the city) was filed last Tuesday before federal judge James Holderman.

“We’re in the ironic position where we agree with the way Burge characterizes the city’s action,” Haas said. “We don’t agree the remedy is for him to get his job back. Our primary interest is to make sure he doesn’t get his job back. Our secondary concern is, we want to win in federal court. If you can prevent the attorneys who for eight to ten years do this work from getting anything, and the lawyers for the police get paid, who’s going to do it again?”

Haas says the city already has paid Kunkle close to a million dollars.

An even darker way to interpret all this is to think the fix was in–what the city really wanted to do was give Kunkle legal ammunition he could take to court to save Burge’s job. Haas entertains the possibility. “A cynical person would say, is there a conspiracy going on here?” he said. “I can’t find a lot of other reasons why the city would be taking this position.”

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