What is the gray shape over there on the right? Is it a barbell whose ends have been partially nibbled by square-mouthed rodents? Is it a glob of Silly Putty stretched within a fraction of an inch of breaking? A slightly decayed periscope? A Rorshach ink blot? Actually it’s Herb Schumann’s Cook County Board district. He’s not too thrilled about it, but it’s his, like it or not.
This fall the County Board divided itself into single-member districts. Previously board members were chosen at-large, ten from the city and seven from the suburbs). No matter where in the city you lived, you could vote for Maria Pappas or Jerry “Ice Man” Butler. But in the next election each of the 17 commissioners will be elected in a geographically defined district, like an alderman or congressperson. This means that districts had to be drawn. In an ideal world they would be tight, contiguous districts that respected neighborhood boundaries. But this is not the ideal world, this is Cook County; the districts had to be drawn so every commissioner (except for two who had already announced retirement) could keep his or her job.
Herbert Schumann was placed in the 17th and last district; from the looks of the map he got the leftovers. His district starts up in Wheeling Township, about ten miles north of O’Hare, and extends all the way south to the Will County line–42 miles altogether. Yet along much of its length, it’s less than one mile wide.
“I have parts of 11 different townships plus the city of Chicago, and who knows how many post offices,” Schumann grumbled as he voted against the County Board map. He and Maria Pappas were the only board members to vote against the districts; Pappas makes it a rule to vote against anything favored by County Board president Richard Phelan.
Schumann probably doesn’t have time to tour his new bailiwick. But that’s all right, I do. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and I’m traveling along Willow Road. Pal-Waukee Airport, reportedly the world’s largest private airport, appears to my right. Schumann might want to keep Pal-Waukee’s number at hand. A helicopter might be useful in getting from one end of his district realm to the other.
9:30 A.M.: I’m travelling south on River Road, but the Des Plaines River is nowhere in sight. Instead, there’s the original McDonald’s restaurant, now preserved as a free museum. Passing motorists can see a mannequin dressed as a 1950s counterman and tarp-covered cars of probable 1950s vintage. A huge sign boasts OVER ONE MILLION hamburgers sold.
Historical value aside, this fossil McDonald’s is not the most notable restaurant in Des Plaines. That honor goes to the Choo Choo Cafe, where an electric train brings breakfast from the kitchen to your counter. There I ask a gray-haired waitress how she likes being part of Herb Schumann’s district. “Who?” she asks. I explain. She mumbles something in Greek and then says, “I don’t know, that’s politics.”
11 A.M. I drive by the Chicago portion of Schumann’s district–O’Hare International Airport. Schumann claims he has about 200 Chicago constituents–homeless people who used O’Hare as an address when registering to vote.
A few minutes later I’m in the 15-mile stretch of territory connecting the district’s main population centers. The district here resembles the Republic of Chile on a diet. It’s only about eight-tenths of a mile wide. On a clear day you can see from one sideof it to the other. It’s so thin that if it were a farm, the only crop it could grow would be spaghetti.
Noon: Wolf Road, the eastern boudary of Schumann’s district along this stretch, continues to Lake Street in the industrial suburb of Stone Park, then stops. Memo to Herb Schumann: You can’t ride straight through your own district here. You can do one of two things. Either go right on Lake and, if you’re like me, get stuck on the expressway and forced miles out of your way, or turn left on Lake to Mannheim and double back. I recommend the latter.
1 P.M. At Discipio’s Farm (“Discipio’s Historic Farm,” if a sign on a nearby hay wagon is to be believed), which may be the only pumpkin farm in Schumann’s district. I buy some tomatoes and cucumbers and strike up a political conversation with the clerk. “Herb who?”
A middle-aged customer with graying hair and glasses adds her two cents’ worth. “I live in La Grange. I don’t know about him, but I’ll tell you how I vote for the judges. I vote against every one of them–always have.”
The clerk now adds a halfhearted “Schumann, you say? I guess I’ve heard of him.” Sure you have.
2:10 P.M. Andorra. Liechtenstein. San Marino. Singapore. Monaco. I’m playing a mind game now, thinking of the countries in the United Nations with less north-south distance than the 17th district of Cook County.
2:30 P.M. Not even the repainted, refurbished storefronts on Main Street can hide the fact that Lemont was and is a river town. Docks and construction companies line the Des Plaines River just a few blocks from Main Street. A nearby bar sports an old-style horizontal Blatz sign. Inside, geezers in baseball caps are solving the world’s problems. This southwesternmost Cook County town seems to have as much in common with upscale Wheeling as Pittsburgh does with Beverly Hills.
So far, not only do the residents of Herb Schumann’s domain have no opinion about their new County Board seat, they have no opinion (or knowledge) of Herb Schumann. But librarians are full of knowledge. Surely they’ll have an opinion about the local political situation.
I enter the Lemont public library, which is located inside the town’s high school. The library’s director, identified by a name tag as Jim, hasn’t heard of Schumann either. “I don’t know if [the new County Board districts] will affect me,” he says. But he smiles and comments, “It’ll give me somebody to give a hard time to and he can’t weasel out of it.”
3 P.M. The southwestern corner of Cook County is the beginning of rural Illinois. Mailboxes by the side of the road, prairies, cornfields–these are not the sights one expects in one of the most populous counties in America. But bulldozers here and there bode the future. Five years from now this land will be exurban, in ten years, suburban. One of these rural roads is 94th Avenue. A weed-filled field lies on the west side of it. Across the street sit two blue former houses now occupied by the police and administrative offices of Orland Hills.
Michael Jordan. Michael Jackson. Colin Powell. Liz Taylor. Jody Foster. Joey Buttafuoco. These are a few people who might be described as household names among the municipal employees of Orland Hills. Herb Schumann–he’s one who isn’t. Neither a matron with horn-rimmed glasses nor a young woman at a computer has ever heard of Schumann, although the matron exclaims “My heavens!” when told of the dimensions of her County Board district.
5 P.M. I start driving north, past Orland Park (“World’s Golf Center”) and Worth (“The Friendly Village”), then I head west at Palos Hills, the heart of Herb Schumann country, where the commissioner lives.
Up until now, in my quest for people who have opinions about Cook County Commissioner Herb Schumann, I’ve been seeking out people who might know something about politicians. But now, toward the end of my journey, I’m trying a different tack–people who might know something about Herbs. There’s a Burger King on 111th Street in Palos Hills. A few years ago Burger King ran an ad campaign starring a character named Herb.
Inside, I ask a man whose age hints that he’s at least an assistant manager. “Herb Schumann? I don’t know him. Maybe he comes in here, but we get so many customers, so who knows?”
Commissioner Schumann, who lives only a few blocks away, could not be reached for comment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.