Yesterday, PG read an article commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of Mike Royko.
PG is certain that most of the world has never heard of Royko, a Polish-Ukranian newspaperman who wrote a daily column for the Chicago Daily News for many years.
When the Daily News closed down in 1978, Royko took his column to the Chicago Sun-Times. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, Royko quit with the comment, “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.” He finished his career at the Chicago Tribune.
Royko was the quintessential voice of the little guy and the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago, skewering the politicians of the Democratic party machine and the wealthy Republicans who supported them whenever the occasion arose. And the occasion arose quite frequently. He attended a junior college briefly, but had no formal training in writing other than what he absorbed working in newspapers.
Every day when he got off work, Royko went to the Billy Goat Tavern, the blue-collar after-hours haunt of Chicago journalists. He was well-known for being rude to any slumming young executive types who tried to talk to him while he was drinking.
When PG was commuting to work at his first couple of jobs in Chicago after graduating from college, he read Royko’s column every day. He remembers one Royko column discussing the replacement of Men’s and Women’s restroom signs at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with pictographs – outline drawings in the shape of men and women. Royko opined that this change was necessary because Chicago aldermen kept walking into the wrong bathrooms at the airport.
Following is one of Royko’s classic columns. For some context, Mayor Daley is Mayor Richard J. Daley, who served as mayor of Chicago for twenty-one years and died in office. After a few short-term mayors, Mayor Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley served as mayor of Chicago for twenty-two years. While plenty of their political supporters were indicted on various corruption charges, each of the Daleys managed to skate.
Mayor Daley walked to the white piece of ribbon and put his hand on it. He was about to give it a pull when the photographers yelled for him to wait. He stood there for a minute and gave them that familiar blend of scowl and smile.
It was good that he waited. This was a moment to think about, to savor what was about to happen. In just a moment, with a snap of the mayor’s wrist, Chicago history would be changed. That’s no small occurrence·the cultural rebirth of a big city.
Out there in the neighborhoods and the suburbs, things probably seemed just the same. People worried about the old things·would they move in and would we move out? Or would we move in and would they move out?
But downtown, the leaders of culture and influence were gathered for a historical event and it was reaching a climax with Mayor Daley standing there ready to pull a ribbon.
Thousands waited in and around the Civic Center plaza. They had listened to the speeches about the Picasso thing. They had heard how it was going to change Chicago’s image.
They had heard three clergymen·a priest, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister·offer eloquent prayers. That’s probably a record for a work by Picasso, a dedicated atheist.
And now the mayor was standing there, ready to pull the ribbon.
You could tell it was a big event by the seating. In the first row on the speakers platform was a lady poet. In the second row was Alderman Tom Keane. And in the third row was P. J. Cullerton, the assessor. When Keane and Cullerton sit behind a lady poet, things are changing.
The only alderman in the front row was Tom Rosenberg. And he was there only because it was a cultural event and he is chairman of the City Council’s Culture Committee, which is in charge of preventing aldermen from spitting, swearing, and snoring during meetings.
The whole thing had been somber and serious. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had played classical music. It hadn’t played even one chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Chief Judge John Boyle had said the Picasso would become more famous than the Art Institute’s lions. Boyle has vision.
Someone from the National Council of Arts said it was paying tribute to Mayor Daley. This brought an interested gleam in the eyes of a few ward committeemen.
William Hartmann, the man who thought of the whole thing, told of Picasso’s respect for Mayor Daley. Whenever Hartmann went to see Picasso, the artist asked:
“Is Mayor Daley still mayor of Chicago?”
When Hartmann said this, Mayor Daley bounced up and down in his chair, he laughed so hard. So did a few Republicans in the cheap seats, but they didn’t laugh the same way.
After the ceremony, it came to that final moment the mayor standing there holding the white ribbon.
Then he pulled.
There was a gasp as the light blue covering fell away in several pieces. But it was caused by the basic American fascination for any mechanical feat that goes off as planned.
In an instant the Picasso stood there unveiled for all to see.
A few people applauded. But at best, it was a smattering of applause. Most of the throng was silent.
They had hoped, you see, that it would be what they had heard it would be.
A woman, maybe. A beautiful soaring woman. That is what many art experts and enthusiasts had promised. They had said that we should wait that we should not believe what we saw in the pictures.
If it was a woman, then art experts should put away their books and spend more time in girlie joints.
The silence grew. Then people turned and looked at each other. Some shrugged. Some smiled. Some just stood there, frowning or blank-faced.
Most just turned and walked away. The weakest pinch-hitter on the Cubs receives more cheers.
They had wanted to be moved by it. They wouldn’t have stood there if they didn’t want to believe what they had been told that it would be a fine thing.
But anyone who didn’t have a closed mind·which means thinking that anything with the name Picasso connected must be wonderful could see that it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing.
That is all there is to it. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago. And from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it.
Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, the settlers who took the Indians but good.
Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.
It has the look of the dope pusher and of the syndicate technician as he looks for just the right wire to splice the bomb to.
Any bigtime real estate operator will be able to look into the face of the Picasso and see the spirit that makes the city’s rebuilding possible and profitable.
It has the look of the big corporate executive who comes face to face with the reality of how much water pollution his company is responsible for and then thinks of the profit and loss and of his salary.
It is all there in that Picasso thing the I Will spirit. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.
Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.