Making the Piper Pay

Last week Bill Currie stood outside Water Tower Place in his kilt and practically begged police to ticket him for playing his bagpipes. On Friday he got his wish. “They say I can’t play my bagpipes on the street,” says Currie, a 64-year-old retired Tribune reporter. “To me, it’s an important First Amendment issue about open space. It’s a public street. I have the appropriate street-entertainer permit. Shouldn’t I be allowed to play my pipes?”

A lot of people would say no. Currie insists he’s a trained professional making music, not noise, though he admits it’s loud. To people trying to read, write, think, work, or sleep, it’s probably just a racket.

Currie’s been playing three or four days a week on North Michigan since May, when he plunked down $50 and got his official street-entertainer permit from the city. He says people from Fourth Presbyterian asked him to move when he was playing his pipes outside their church, so he headed over to the northeast corner of Pearson and Michigan, figuring it was already a noisy spot and there were no residences nearby. And it was a good place to solicit donations. “If you’re a busker, this is the corner to play,” he says. “The summer went without a hitch. The people said they loved me.”

On September 21 a police officer gave him a warning. “He was a nice fellow,” says Currie. “He said, ‘Commander [William] O’Donnell is pretty upset, and he wants me to write you a ticket.’ I asked, for what? He said, ‘Disturbing the peace.’ I was thinking, whose peace am I disturbing? He said, ‘I don’t want to, but if I get one more complaint I’ll have to write you a ticket.'”

Currie returned the next day, and another officer, presumably also serving under 18th District commander William O’Donnell, asked him to stop playing. “He said, ‘The commander’s getting calls–he wants you to leave,'” says Currie. “I kept asking, ‘Who’s complaining? Is it a lot of people, or just one person with a lot of clout?’ I’ve never gotten an answer.”

On September 23 Currie called O’Donnell. “I wound up speaking to a Sergeant Mayo,” he says. “I raised the obvious irony about Sergeant Mayo and Commander O’Donnell wanting a bagpiper off the street. He was very businesslike. He told me he’d talked to the commander and the commander wants me off the street.” (O’Donnell didn’t return my calls.)

Currie says he then went to talk to the local alderman, the 42nd Ward’s Burton Natarus. “I went to one of his ward nights,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m the piper.’ Burt said, ‘I can’t help you.’ I told him hundreds of people had come up to me and said they loved me. And Burt said, ‘Yeah, they’re all Irish.'” (Natarus didn’t return my calls either.)

Currie says Natarus did give him some advice: “He encouraged me to go back and get the police to write me a ticket to test the law.” Currie wrote O’Donnell a letter, notifying him that he intended to return to the corner on October 10 to play his bagpipes. “I came back on the 10th and played for two hours–and nothing happened,” he says. “I had told them I would be there, and no police showed up. I was starting to wonder, ‘What does a guy have to do to get a ticket around here?'”

Then he got one. “I was playing, and a policeman said, ‘You’ve got to move on,'” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not going to move on. Write a ticket.’ He went away, and 45 minutes later he returned with the city’s noise ordinance.”

According to the ordinance, “The sound pressure level on the public way measured at a distance of ten feet or further from the source” can’t exceed 80 decibels. “I asked if he put a decibel meter on it,” says Currie. “He said no. So how do they know I exceeded 80 decibels?”

The officer pointed to a second sentence in the ordinance that prohibits sounds “louder than an average conversational level at a distance of 200 feet or more, measured either horizontally or vertically from the point of generation.”

“Apparently I violated that prohibition, though I have no idea how he measured it,” says Currie. “By the way, while this was going on they were paving nearby. People couldn’t hear my bagpipes over the construction anyway. There was something absurd about the whole exchange.”

Currie concedes that some of his friends and family think he’s nuts for making such a fuss, but he’s pressing on. His court date is November 4, and he intends to argue that the law’s unconstitutional, inconsistent, and unwarranted. “I think we ought to allow a piper to play on one of Chicago’s busiest, noisiest streets in the middle of the day,” he says. “Now that I finally got them to write me a ticket, I want my day in court.”

Refuge From the Storm

Four years ago Chicago activists threw a party for Lew Kreinberg, the legendary west-side rabble-rouser who was retiring to a house on Mississippi’s gulf coast. In August he and his wife, jazz promoter Penny Tyler, lost that house in Hurricane Katrina. “Our home got hit by a 32-foot-high surge,” says Kreinberg. “Fortunately we had evacuated. Everything was washed away. Everything. Gone.”

Eventually they came back north. “I’m happy they’re back, though obviously I wish it were under better circumstances,” says Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the social-service organization Kreinberg helped found in the 60s.

Back then he was an organizer on the west side, building coalitions between blacks and white Catholics and Jews. He’s been at the forefront of many of the big social struggles of the past 40 years, from Dr. Martin Luther King’s open-housing marches in the mid-60s to the fight to save Maxwell Street in the 90s.

By training, Kreinberg’s a historian. He’s good at digging through obscure reports and documents to find evidence of unjust, wasteful, or simply boneheaded policies. And he was good at getting reporters to write about what he found.

“Lew would call you up and badger you,” says Richard Longworth, a former Tribune reporter who used material Kreinberg gave him in the late 80s to write a four-part series on the proposed world’s fair. “There’s really no one like Lew–his perseverance, his willingness to do his homework, his sheer enthusiasm and joy at the battle. He believes that if you only know what he knows you’ll agree with him entirely.”

In 2001 Kreinberg and Tyler, both then 65, decided they’d endured enough winters, and he retired from JCUA. “They had the most wonderful party for me over at the Garfield Conservatory,” he says. “Then we left. I never figured we’d come back, unless it was for a visit.”

They bought a three-bedroom house about 50 feet from the beach in Waveland. They read, swam, listened to music, entertained friends and family, and visited New Orleans. “It was heaven,” says Tyler.

Then came Katrina. “We knew we were living in hurricane country,” says Tyler. “I have a hurricane box, which my kids always kid about. I keep various titles and a couple of very special things, like pictures of family and a videotape of our wedding, at which Mayor Washington officiated. I got that hurricane box and one small suitcase, and Lew had a gym bag.” With their two dogs, they headed to a hotel in Jackson.

“We lost it all,” says Tyler. “My record collection–thousands and thousands of records. Our books–oh, God, so many precious books. And countless mementos, manuscripts, pictures that mean so much. All gone. Yes, we’re grateful that we’re still alive, and believe me, I know other people have suffered even more–our whole village was wiped away. And we thank the Lord that we’re still here. But it still hurts.”

They’re living temporarily in a friend’s apartment. They’re not quite sure what they’ll do long-term, but they figure they’ll stay in Chicago. “We’re definitely not going back to Mississippi,” says Kreinberg. “Our shirts say ‘Sippi–‘Cause We Don’t Miss It.”

Ramsey, Longworth, and other friends are throwing a party on Monday, October 24, to welcome them back and pass the hat to raise money for musicians displaced by Katrina. It starts at 5:30 PM at Andy’s Lounge, 11 E. Hubbard. For more information call Ramsey at 312-663-0960.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling, Kathy Richland.