Guernica Magazine

Crimes of Opportunity: (Excerpts from Maggie Brown & Others)

We’d never seen the Buddha before and we’d searched my grandfather’s drawers hundreds of times. (I was especially drawn to what he called his French postcards, topless women posing like kittens.) The post Crimes of Opportunity: (Excerpts from Maggie Brown & Others) appeared first on Guernica.
Illustration: Somnath Bhatt.

Speech at the Urinal,

Drake Hotel, Chicago, December 1980

The urinals, five of them, marble coffins standing upright. I hunched beside my father as we pissed into the fruit and ice. The men’s room attendant my father knew by name—Evening, Henry. Greet Mr. Henry, son, and always look a gentleman in the eye—stood behind us, waiting, steamed towels draped over his forearm.

I no longer remember the exact content of the speech. But I know it was an ode to the faded grandeur of that old stuffed-shirt hotel, that pompous men’s room, to Mr. Henry and his flour-white hair and his warmed-up towels, and above all, to those mighty urinals where generations of Chicago manhood have come to deliver of themselves. To my father the Drake Hotel was a buttress against all that was encroaching after a decadent decade. The ’70s disgusted him. People spitting right on the sidewalk, public nudity (not that my father had any trouble with it in the flesh and in fact quite enjoyed it; it was the principal of nudity being acceptable that took all the fun out of it), women lawyers. Women lawyers, my father said, among other contrary attributes, are far too excitable for the law. The law must be as fixed, as immoveable, as stony-faced as these Pharaonic toilets. A longish piss into the crackling ice, into the sliced melon and grapefruit and strawberries, and my father discoursed and I stood there, long out of piss myself, and listened. Chicago was still his city. There may be a lady mayor now, Jane Byrne (and if there’s going to be a lady mayor, let it be a chick as brassy as Jane Byrne), but by God the Drake is still the Drake and the fruit in the men’s room urinals is still so fresh you could eat it. This is style, this is grace, and this kind of style, this kind of grace, can’t be bought, not with money, new money anyway, though this doesn’t mean you should ever find yourself without money, old, new, borrowed, stolen, embezzled, conned—No greater dishonor in this city, or anywhere else for that matter. Better to be rich and in jail, got it? Better to be rich and dead, are you hearing me? Is this getting across?

And Mr. Henry waits, twin towels folded over his arm.

Visions of Mr. Swibel

For years, first under the old man, and then under Mayors Mike Bilandic and Jane Byrne, Charles Swibel was chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. A rich real estate developer, the fox in charge of the henhouse. Yet this was Chicago, and nobody but the reformers much blinked. And who ever listened to the reformers—background noise of a majestic city?

You hear something?

No, what?

I dunno, some voices.

Go buy some ear plugs.

Through the ’70s my father was a rising, youngish lawyer who, among other things, represented the CHA in tort cases. When a resident got hurt at the Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green or Stateway Gardens and sued the city, my father defended the CHA. Often he argued successfully that though the stairwell was unlit or the elevator out of order, the plaintiff, having lived in the building for such and such amount of time certainly.

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