Go Out and Get “Get Capone”

Jonathan Eig has just released his new book, Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster. By all accounts (check the advance reviews at the website), it is a terrific read, bringing alive a slice of Chicago history as vivid as a razor across the throat.

Jon allowed me to read a couple of passages early on, but I can’t wait to read the entire book. I also can’t wait to see him on The Daily Show at the end of the week.

Go out and get this book. IPhone users might also like to buy his app, Chicago Gangland Tours, which will allow you to find places in town connected with more than 600 historical facts. Makes me want to go buy an iPhone right now, just to cruise the city.

Jon allowed me to submit some questions for my column **cough cough** at True/Slant, exploring the role Chicago itself played in Capone’s rise and meteoric fall. You can find it by clicking here.

Sexy New Poem on Bardball

Well, I don’t know if the poem is sexy, but it’s about sex.

And I don’t know if having sex in the men’s bathroom at Comiskey Park on Opening Day is sexy — in fact, it sounds like a nightmare, and a great an STD and a visit to 26th and California — but it did inspire a poem. It’s up today on Bardball.

South Side Fireworks, Inside

On Opening Day at the Cell,
Amidst the ravening horde,
The men’s room witnessed a tryst ‘twixt
A South Side lady and lord.

All the prudes and official blue-noses
Who by this action were floored
Should think of the White Sox’s condition
And be grateful that somebody scored.

The Year of Beer

It was only about a year ago that my ever-lovin’ wife put the bug in my ear to take up my former hobby of homebrewing. it was something I picked up in college, and kept pursuing off and on until we moved into a house with a small kitchen and a filthy basement, which left me with no reliable place to brew. Another reason I stopped was that I was doing a lot of wet, intensive work to produce six packs which would then be mostly used as hostess gifts. Gifts that were never opened in front of us.

Hours of time and effort tossed down the hospitality hole.

But last summer I invested in a 2.5 gallon aluminum keg and a CO2 priming system, which we keep filled and chilled in the fridge out at the cottage. Now golden malt nectar is available 24/7 during the summer, and the only people who get to drink it are those I like well enough to invite there. A perfect situation.

Now that I’m back with the wort-and-sparge crowd, it feels like the whole world is becoming top-fermented. A terrific microbrewery opened only two blocks away, in a converted auto body shop. Half Acre Brewing is only available in Chicago, but they make some stunning brews, especially their lager and Daisy Cutter Pale Ale.

Last night I got to experience a little bit of beer-nerd Valhalla in a brewery tour of the Goose Island Brewery. Head brewer John J Hall went into some very fine detail in explaining basic brewing, plus the tireless research and experimentation of its brewmaster (and friend of mine) Greg Hall (no relation). Goose Island has trotted out some marvelous Belgian-style beers in the past four years, which seems to be the latest trend, but John Hall told us that Greg has been working with them for more than 15 years. My tour group paid great attention to the minutiae of the brewing process, even as we drank large quantities of Green Line, Matilda and Pepe Nero, a saisson style beer made with black peppercorns. And just this afternoon, said wife and I made a special trip to grab a bottle of Bourbon County Stout, which is aged in bourbon casks from the Van Winkle Distillery. The big problem now is finding a special time to open these up. (I think the Blackhawks defeating the Predators might qualify.)

And in a few weeks, my buddy Jim Powers will be launching the special event, BEERHOPTACULAR, a weekend fest of microbrews, home brewing, tasting and all in all heavenly jolliness. It’ll be at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago June 4 and 5. Brewers from all over the nation will be there, so come on down.

I first learned homebrewing while working at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, where a lot of us in the Crafts Department were indeed crafty, hands-on people. It struck me then, and still strikes me now, that making your own beer is empowering, economical, entrepreneurial, and ecologically sound. (After examining the carbon footprint of their beers, Goose Island decided to launch its Green Line Pale Ale. It’s served only in kegs to cut down on energy, and they hope to keep buying materials that are closer and closer to Chicago. To this end, they’re talking with farmers in Wisconsin into growing barley and hops, to eliminate shipping from Oregon, Montana and Europe.)

Can we help save the planet by drinking local beer and making our own home brew? I’ve heard stupider ideas, and I was going to be drinking anyway, so it’s worth a try.

I hearby coin and copyright the term LOCABIBING. You’re welcome.

“Parade’s” Paycheck Parade

This is hardly earth-shattering news, and not very timely besides, but last week Parade Magazine published its annual celebration of pecuniary envy, “What People Earn”. This gives us, amid all the ads for weight loss systems and USMC-themed Hummel-like figurines, the chance to line up what Tiger Woods makes with the take-home of a janitor in Billings, Mt., and a circuit court judge in Kalamazoo.

Now, I was always taught that it was rude to ask people what they earn. In some circles (like among Europeans), it’s actually bad form to try to maintain a conversation by talking about something as boring as a job–a person should have (or try to cultivate) better conversational skills using more intriguing methods of interpersonal exchange. So I guess instead of dissing Parade for being nosy, boring, and banal, I should thank it for asking the questions people want to know.

Then again, screw it. I’ll thank them when Walter Scott answers the reader question: “What does Courtney Cox think of man’s basic nature? Is there really an objective division between good and evil, or are our souls the active battleground of good and evil, as the Manichaeists believe?”

The results of Parade‘s crack reporters’ research shows that, by gosh, just as you might think, there’s a huge range of dollar amounts for everyone listed. Tiger Woods, $100 million. A pastor in Wichita, $5,800. US Army dog handler, $30K. The 25-year-old CEO of Facebook, $3 billion.

Sure, I believe that guy’s worth $3 billion. Until the next big computer fad comes out, and he’s left to scrounge nickels like the guys from Napster, MySpace, and Netscape.

Seeing Parade in the Sunday paper always makes my skin crawl (True headline from this week’s online edition: “Lisa Kudrow Says It’s Important to Keep History Alive!”). But this paycheck issue is always extra-creepy, for a number of reasons:

* It’s plain nauseating to think that Glenn Beck made $23 million last year (which is a low guess anyway, since Forbes estimates it was closer to $32 mil.), because that’s just not a world I want to live in. Ditto Jay Leno bringing in $32 mil.

* There is a forced camaraderie and false connection implied by lining up everyone’s picture on an equal grid, so that Johnny Depp and a nursing home worker look like fellow students in a high school yearbook. Sorry, Johnny Depp seems like a likeable down-to-earth megastar, but he lives on a different planet. And on that planet, he owns four houses and lives with a French model. Nothing against Seymour, Tenn., but Johnny Depp is not popping in for a BBQ anytime soon, no matter how friendly the people seem.

* The strained equivalences are reinforced by use of the first person plural throughout the article. “How We’re Making It Work.” As best as we can, thanks, though the cost of living is a lot different in South Dakota than in suburban Maryland, and people like Kanye West are making it work because they can afford lots of handlers and lawyers to keep them out of trouble when they get drunk and abuse people.

* It forces me to consider scenarios in which I’m working in a menial job in a flyspeck town. Fate may be capricious, of course, and it’s a longshot that it would happen, but what if an old “Twilight Zone” storyline came true, and you woke up one morning with your body switched with a complete stranger’s? And why should you have people across America learn that you make crap wages?

* It hurts my head to imagine the reality behind some of the people’s occupations and stated income. A modern dancer in Murray, Utah, earning $32,000? There’s a modern dancer in Murray, Utah? And she makes a living wage? Weird, baby.

* And I hate it because it’s so transparently shoddy, for all the above reasons, and so illuminates the problem of ranking articles like this, whether published by Forbes or Inc. or Jack & Jill. While trying to pass as important sociologically and even anthropologically, they are always merely one editor’s idea of an interesting topic, fleshed out under deadline with questionable methods. How did Parade find the retail salesperson in Kreamer, Pa., and why did she tell them she only made $8200 last year? And what conclusions can be made from a call that certainly was made randomly? And I hate myself for getting sucked into articles like this, too.

And then there’s a long, long argument to be made about whether a person’s income is in any way reflective of the worth they add to society, and the growing chasm between the wealth of the richest and the poorest in America, but those are for another time. Most of the people in the article aren’t too concerned that the average CEO makes 300 times what his average worker makes. They’re probably just happy to have their pictures in the paper.

And heavens, that’s enough time spent on THAT magazine. Sorry for wasting your time on it.

My Trip to C2E2: Adventures in Jiggle City

So I went to my first comic convention on Friday, the C2E2 down at McCormick Place. I went dressed as my favorite character: the middle-aged scribbler with writer’s block who is on the hunt for work. And if I do say so, my impersonation was seamless.

It was a fun way to spend the afternoon. I almost brought my daughter, but I’m glad I didn’t, which I’ll explain later. It was about what I expected, times 5. Lots of crazy pop culture going on. Publishers trotting out their star creators and titles. Indies trying to grab someone’s attention (If zombies are popular, and the Wizard of OZ is a perennial AND in the public domain, what could be better than….ZOMBIE SCOTTIE: TOTO’S REVENGE!!). Retailers from all over the Midwest trying to unload their stock to serious collectors. Numerous corset makers (well, I admit, I didn’t really see those coming, and wished I hadn’t seen them at all). And lots of fanboys and fangirls grabbing up free samples of everything.

I’m almost completely over any qualms telling people that I’m pitching a graphic novel idea. With the popularity of comic movies and TV shows, R.Crumb’s Bible adaptation and other inroads into bookstores, the slow invasion of comics into “acceptable” culture may finally be declared a victory. Then again, when I mentioned my trip to the convention later in the weekend, a writer friend of mine asked, with the slightest archness in his voice, “Do you have an ….. affinity for those kinds of things?” It was a bit of a conversation killer, but I did admire this playwright’s ability to choose just the proper word.

But besides defending myself from insinuations like these, and any and all comments about it from my mother, what’s the downside to it? If my project breaks through, it could have tremendous upside: Regular writing work, quick turnaround, an active fanbase, the chance to do something way out of the ordinary once I earn a publisher’s trust. Compare it to the state of “regular” publishing today, and I’ll take it. Or rather, there’s no reason NOT to take it, since comics aren’t so stigmatized and set apart anymore, at least when it comes to dollars and cents. A “regular” publisher could care less if your previous book was a collection of bawdy anagrams that slandered the Pope and the Freemasons, as long as that collection made money.

The deal hasn’t come through yet anyway, so this is premature to write about. Keeping my fingers crossed.

The thing that struck me the hardest at the con–and what made me glad my 12-year-old daughter didn’t come along this year–was the sheer amount of cleavage and jiggling on display. Especially in Artist Alley, where scribblers sat to meet with fans and get a little spending money from prints, quick sketches, and homemade chapbooks, there was cheesecake everywhere. I didn’t have any big problem with it, and I’m sure it drove traffic to the individual’s booth, but it was quite a lot all the same.

Some guys were clever about it. One artist was peddling a calendar of original art that combined pin-up girls with classic movie monsters, with corny sentiments like “Blinded by Science!” as Frankenstein’s monster and a lab tech in a short white coat dodged lightning bolts from the lab equipment. Others just took famous characters and drew them a little more R-rated, like Catwoman lounging dishabille, apparently after a particular humid caper. And one person had a portfolio explicitly marked “Not For Kids”, which had Betty and Veronica doing all sorts of nasty things they don’t teach at Riverdale High. (The creators of Archie Comics had a strong presence at this fair–how would they react if that portfolio turned up? Is it just wink-wink, nudge-nudge time, or are there serious copyright issues involved?)

One artist friend of mine was attending, and told the story about a collector who, after a few months of correspondence, got up the nerve to ask for a drawing of a famous national newscaster, depicted as a hamster. Oh, and naked, of course.

These kinds of stories never floated around Book Expo America, but frankly, I don’t care. If the comic geeks will have me, I’ll have them.

Tigers Opening Day 2010

I’d been battling allergies for a couple of weeks and was completely drained of energy. On the night before, I played host to a book signing and stayed out til midnight with the literary types singing karaoke at a lesbian bar.

So, what was the best thing to do to stay healthy? Of course! Wake up at 5 AM and drive to Detroit for the Tigers Home Opener!

I’ve now been to more Opening Days at Comerica Park than I ever did at Tiger Stadium. I wish that weren’t the case, but I never was into skipping school, and generally had a good excuse not to go during college years. Then I moved to Chicago and tried to pretend I didn’t care. Now, it’s too late for the Stadium, which was finally and completely knocked down last summer. But Old Comiskey’s gone too, and Yankee Stadium. Those fights are done, time to get on with living.

It was an overcast day, temperature at game time was 38. But my friend Gary sold me one of his very sweet upper deck seats that looked right up the first base line.

The wind was minimal, the company was good, and the Tigers beat the Indians 5-3. (One thing I wish they’d do is STOP singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. Come on, guys, just quit it. It’s depressing and pompous and no one connects it with 9/11 anymore.)

Ernie Harwell wasn’t there, for the first time since 1960 (minus his lost year when former GM Bo Schembechler fired him). Ernie is suffering from pancreatic cancer, and probably won’t make it to see Opening Day 2011. Once again, a reminder that time marches on.

It was a crazy scene in the streets after the game. I haven’t seen so many people completely shitfaced in a long, long time. Not just 20-yr-olds, but people in their 40s and 50s, who oughta know their limits by now. They were being dragged around by their friends like it was “Weekend at Bernie’s” time, literally vomiting and pissing their pants. Someone in our group speculated that it might show the economy is doing better, which would put people in a better mood. Then again, he thought it might show the economy is in worse shape, and people are cutting loose in frustration. I don’t know which is true, but watching some idiot take a swing at a cop in full daylight was more than a little pathetic. Every big public event doesn’t HAVE to turn into Mardi Gras, does it?

After the game and a little beer reception, a bunch of us headed to the Polish Village Cafe on Yemans, a terrific place in Hamtramck. (I also now know more Polish restaurants in Detroit than I do in Chicago–sad but true! I still intend to drag my kids out to one soon, just to tick off that box.)

Then we grabbed a couple beers at Skipper’s Hamtown Bar on Conant, which is run by a truly great innkeeper and has a fridge stocked with all things good, including Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, possibly my favorite malt beverage. Skipper is an old neighborhood guy who knows all the politicians and went to school with half of them. It’s a warm, friendly place full of crazy Detroit people. Anyone who doubts that the city will survive should hang out there for a night and listen to the patrons and their love of the Motor City.

One of my favorite reasons for going to Detroit is crashing at the house of my friends Gary and Vicki. They live in Indian Village, in a beautiful house designed by a young Albert Kahn, the famed industrial architect. Indian Village is a beautiful neighborhood that reeks of the class and money that Detroit enjoyed in the first quarter of the last century. (Surrounding it is some pretty rough terrain, let alone wasteland, but enough has been written about that lately.) It is truly striking to see the remnants of that era and realize how much money the car makers were bringing to the city then. Now, you can buy a 5000 sq ft house in Indian Village for the low six figures. Or even less, although many speculators swooped in during the housing collapse.

When I was young, my dad kept a boat on the Detroit River, and occasionally we visited people’s houses in elegant, old-school neighborhoods like Indian Village and Grayhaven, which had a canal and boathouses for each of the properties. Hanging around near Belle Isle brings back those memories. Just looking down Gary’s street, with the spring trees barely stopping the sunshine, you can see the Detroit River rushing by, same as always. We ate breakfast Saturday morning at a pancake breakfast at the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, a gorgeous old place with friendly people.

Visiting Detroit almost always brings back large waves of nostalgic feelings and memories. This year, it didn’t. Maybe I was too tired. Maybe the final demolition of Tiger Stadium somehow stuck one last nail in that coffin. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about what the future may hold for Detroit, how Mayor Bing is hoping to relocate people away from blighted areas so the city provide services to a dispersed and shrinking population, how “decay porn” is attracting the notice of all the news organizations around the world. Figuring out where the place will end up is a confusing business.

It’s much easier just to weigh the Tigers chances for the World Series, now that they’ve lost Granderson, Polanco and Rodney.

Calling all REAL men: Come out to the Book Cellar Thursday!

This Thursday night, April 8, will be “Guys Night” at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. There’ll be lots of scratching, spitting, and thinking about sex every 7 seconds.

And if you can’t find your own way to the Nonfiction Section, don’t ask any of us to ask for directions! Burp!

I’ll be the humble host of this night of readings, which will feature:

Jonathan Eig, reading from his about-to-be released blockbuster, Get Capone.

Bryan Gruley, reading excerpts from his further-down-the-road-to-be-released sequel to Starvation Lake, entitled The Hanging Tree. Hockey, northern Michigan, egg pie, MURDER–the works!

Peter Schilling, author of a book that’s by-god in the store, The End of Baseball, a fictional account of Bill Veeck’s attempt to field a major-league team in 1944 with all Negro League players.

And to make everything even muy mas macho, I’ll read a few poems from Bardball and throw around words like mackinaw, ingot, and smelt. Come on out at 7:00 and support your local indie bookstore!