#518: A Disaster Editorial

August 19th, 2015

His voice got angry a bit as he related the story. Sad and distant too somehow.

“There was this old lady in the house, and her puppy too. They both drowned.”

“And you saw that?”

The barber nodded and ran a comb through my hair. I had brought up Hurricane Katrina. He brought up the editorial.

He’s been in Chicago only a couple months. His wife, a jazz singer, has an ongoing contract performing for the House of Blues, so he left his little shop in New Orleans with a trusted partner and headed north, getting a chair at the little shop on Chicago Avenue where the waiting area is full of Shazam! comics and I go to get my hair cut.

The barber is short, Latino, with black shirt and pants and a sideways smirk behind his beard. He has perfectly coiffed and product-ed 1940s hair, a walking ad for the style of old-timey hipsterism the shop specializes in. And he assisted with relief following Hurricane Katrina, trying to save people in flood-choked areas by canoe, but not getting to them all.

“Did you read that article or what it was about the…”

He didn’t have to finish. I knew what he meant.

On the recent 10th anniversary of the disaster, Chicago Tribune editorial board writer Kristen McQueary wrote a piece trying to link the SEO-timely tragedy with city finances, saying she envied the people of New Orleans.

“… I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.”

Her tenet was that the hurricane brought reform to the Big Easy, helping city government clean house in a way the Second City truly needs. I don’t need to highlight the obvious tactlessness of her metaphor, particularly when better writers than me have already tackled this.

Bringing attention to corruption isn’t the job of a hurricane. It’s the job of a newspaper. As I’m a former reporter, current whatever-this-is-er, McQueary’s idle longing for a bloodbath ex machina to do her job for her annoyed me.

Her response, a half-hearted apology that she wrote something we meager readers misunderstood, infuriated me.

“Many readers thought my premise — through my use of metaphor and hyperbole — was out of line. I certainly hear you. I am reading your tweets and emails. And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction.”

Kristen McQueary, no one thought you were actually petitioning the weather gods for a hurricane’s carnage. We know what a metaphor is. We just thought yours was wrong-headed and awful.

If I think Chicago’s finances deserve national attention in the media, I don’t say Chicago should be raped so we get on the cover of New York Magazine like Bill Cosby’s accusers.

If I think we should clean house in local government, I don’t say city hall needs a real Armenian Genocide.

I feel terrible using those as hypothetical examples, especially the New York Magazine one, but I chose them knowing they’re offensive. Why didn’t you know it would be offensive to say you envy the traumatized and the dead of a terrible disaster?

Your metaphor did more than offend thin-skinned hippies like me. It did the one thing metaphors are not supposed to do.

Your words drew more attention than the topic.

No one’s talking about city finances following your editorial. They’re talking about the flip hyperbole of the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen McQueary. That is your failure, not ours.

I’m sorry. I believe your thoughts on city spending are sincere. But you became the story, a failure for writers trying to talk about the world around them. Your tactless metaphor and your “I hear you” response (with “I hear you” the “It’s not you, it’s me” of insincere apologies) distracted from the issue you were trying to highlight, providing more cover for our corrupt officials. I believe there’s actual harm in that.

But I’m not the one you should apologize to.

The jazz scene in Chicago is pretty good, he said as he snipped the little bits of hair sticking around my ears. The Green Mill is nice and he and his wife saw a great show at Mayne Stage.

The food’s more varied too, not just seafood like back in New Orleans.

New Orleans is home, said the man who watched a woman drown because he couldn’t save her. It’ll be nice to get back there.

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Note: The story originally misidentified the New York Magazine cover as Vanity Fair.

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