By Mario Kladis
It’s Sunday night, and I’m sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel. I’m waiting for “Todd,” a community activist. There’s a convention going on, and three sunburned guys in golf shirts are sitting next to me, laughing. Todd arrives around eight. He’s in his 40s, his baseball cap is pulled low on his head, and he’s wearing sandals. He steps into the revolving door, gives me a wave that feels a little too cloak-and-dagger, and swings back out again. I look around. The sunburned guys are interested only in each other. They don’t notice when I leave.
Outside, Todd doesn’t wait for me to catch up. He walks over to a car parked in front of the hotel and gestures for me to get in. His friend “Margot” is in the front seat. I say hi and she nods. We drive around the block, listening to Bonnie Raitt sing “Angel From Montgomery” on the tinny stereo. The car stops at LaSalle and Wacker. We get out and cross to the northeast corner. A city worker shuffles with a broom. He’s wet from the rain, his glasses dotted with beads of water. He passes “Robbie” the cow several times but doesn’t seem to notice that it’s covered with a banner telling the story of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark’s assassination. And he doesn’t seem to smell the pile of fresh dung between Robbie’s legs.
Downwind, Todd and Margot smile at each other like proud parents. They expected some people might miss their handiwork. The poop is part of their message: they say the cows are bullshit.
A young couple walks by. The girl pokes her boyfriend in the ribs and points at Robbie; the boy sees the poop and starts to slow down. When he notices the three of us staring at him, he puts his arm around her, and they walk away.
“Maybe we should stand somewhere else,” I suggest, trying not to breathe through my nose. Todd agrees because he doesn’t want to scare people away from the cow. Margot thinks it would be wise in case any cops show up.
Todd speaks with a slight southern drawl broken by what sounds like an old cough. He’s lived in Chicago since the late 60s, when his car died on the way to “California, probably.” He says he’s worked with community groups ever since, first in Uptown, then later on the south side. He campaigned for Harold Washington in 1983 and ’87, and refers to the late mayor as simply Harold–as in, “Man, when Harold won in ’83, the earth shook.”
In her mid-30s, Margot works for a nonprofit educational organization for women going from welfare to work. She stares wide-eyed at Todd, doting on his every word. When he can’t think of a word, she supplies one for him.
“This used to be the city of big shoulders,” Todd explains, “but now the shoulders are…what is it?”
“Slouching?” Margot suggests.
“Yeah,” Todd says gratefully. “Slouching.” He sounds as if he’s never heard anybody use the word so well.
When asked why they decided to attack the cows, they look at each other warmly, as if trying to remember how they met.
“The cows came,” Todd says, “and my first thought was, Oh, like there’s not enough bullshit in this town–now we need cows.” Then a few weeks ago he and Margot went to see Dudley Do-Right, and after the movie they stumbled across a cow sponsored by a bank. “So I grasped that we weren’t talking about, you know, art cows–we were talking about corporate cows. And that’s when it really hit me,” he says, the pink light from under the LaSalle Street bridge illuminating his face. “Seeing one that was corporate sponsored, it made me realize how what a bunch of crap it all is. And I thought somebody should do something about it. I mean, look at these things. They’re just waiting to be hit. The ‘sacred cows’–the metaphor’s right in front of your face.”
Todd and Margot plotted. They arranged for a friend to bring the cow dung across the state line from “somewhere in Wisconsin.”
“The poop came first,” says Margot, “because, well, the poop is funny.” But they wanted to do more than make people laugh. “The powers that be,” Todd says, “are consciously trying to turn Chicago into a tourist city–a Candyland–as opposed to a neighborhood city, where real people live and work. Richie Daley wants to push out all the ‘irrelevant’ people–basically the poor and the homeless–so he can turn downtown into this kind of walled-in playground. It’s a cycle of…”
“Sickness?” offers Margot.
“Yeah, sickness. And the cows are an emblem of that. The cows are supposed to bring tourists here. So I thought, OK, let’s give the people a welcome wagon. Let’s turn this cow into a one-minute history lesson. Let’s tell them about the real Chicago.” Two blond girls go by. Todd eyes them for a second, then says, “Hey, I wanna follow these girls to see if they see it.”
We follow the girls. Just when it looks like they’ll walk right past Robbie, one of them suddenly turns around and sees the cow. She says something to her friend, and the two move in closer. They don’t notice us while they read the rain-spattered blue banner. Titled “The Real Poop,” it states in big black letters, “3.1 miles from this spot at 2315 W. Monroe Street Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated. He was 20 years old. He founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. The police, led by Richard J. Daley’s then state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan, came at 4 AM knocking on the door. When asked who was there, the police responded, ‘Tommy.’ ‘Tommy who?’ ‘Tommy Gun, motherfucker!’ and fired 300 bullets into the apartment.”
A footnote at the bottom says the message was sponsored by “COWnting On You Inc.” Todd and Margot smile at each other. The girls realize we’re standing behind them. One of them smiles at me. I try to smile back, but I catch another whiff of the poop.
Back in the car Todd and Margot tell me why they chose Robbie.
“Basically, there wasn’t really anybody around there,” says Todd.
“The ones by State and Lake were bad,” says Margot. “There was a CTA guy walking around.”
“And a cop across the street,” says Todd.
“I think where we did it was a good spot,” Margot says. “Maybe a little less traveled. Maybe it will still be there in the morning for people to see on their way to work.”
“Were you worried about getting caught?” I ask.
Todd shrugs. “Not really. I figured nobody would say anything, as long as I acted like I knew what I was doing. Somebody might say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I’m doing the post-Labor Day cow transformation.’ Other people were scared.”
“I was a little afraid,” admits Margot. “I certainly didn’t want to be arrested. I’ve never been in jail. When you run into the authority of the authority, you risk losing your freedom. And the amount of power that the government has is virtually unlimited–there’s a lot of things that could happen once you lose that freedom. But I understand Todd’s take on it, that the cows are this sort of thing that you can play around with. I don’t really want to use the word ‘subversive,’ but that’s kind of what the idea is.”
“I asked my son if he wanted to come,” says Todd. “He liked everything but the poop. He was a little worried about, you know, touching the shit. He thought it was a little too out there.”
Margot smiles at Todd. “People aren’t used to these guerrilla tactics,” she says, turning around to offer me some homemade banana bread.
Early Monday morning, the poop is gone. All that’s left are yellow and brown stains on Robbie’s hooves and the base he’s attached to.
But the Fred Hampton banner is still there. Whoever cleaned up the shit had probably assumed it was part of the art. I laugh. I feel like Todd and Margot have won something. I wish they were here to see the people stopping to check out their first installment.
A little while later I go get coffee. I think about calling Todd from a pay phone, but there’s a line. I decide to go back and stay with Robbie until the city arrives. But when I get to LaSalle and Wacker, I almost don’t recognize him. The banner has disappeared.
There are no city vehicles around–no squad cars, no Streets and Sanitation trucks. Still, for a second I get a chill, like I’m being watched.
I walk over to Robbie. He looks naked. He’s covered with paintings of a family picnicking and a woman being rescued from a fire, but nobody stops to look at him anymore. Without his message, he’s just another cow on parade.