#680: Crooked Streets

August 31st, 2016

“First thing he said to me was, ‘Who’s your Chinaman?’”

“Jim Ryan was the laziest person to ever draw a state salary.”

“My family bribed Otto Kerner.”

I’ve been leading corruption walking tours all summer. I might have mentioned it once or 50 times.

It’s a good walk on a sunny day through the Loop and downtown, telling stories of Chicago-style deep dish politics.

What I’ve enjoyed more than my own yammering was the stories shared with me by the tourists. Not every, not most or even many, but a smatter over the summer shared with me the little tales of corruption and crookedness they witnessed, the stories that got them interested enough in the topic to take a corruption tour in the first place.

Adjusted to keep names and identifying information out of it (please also correct for my memory of things said weeks ago while navigating a crowd through a busy street), here are a few of their stories:

“First thing he said to me was, ‘Who’s your Chinaman?’ I said, ‘What?’”

It was the ’80s and he had just gotten a job with the county jail medical ward. He was young and a little naïve, he said. He’s black, which led to at least some of the confusion about the call for an Asian.

The older worker persisted, using more inside politics slang that continually confounded the young man. He finally spelled it out.

Who was the politically connected boss the young man paid to get him the job at the county jail medical ward?

It was the first surprise in what would be a 30-year career in the county, transferring between departments, seeing purchasing invoices and tampered billing procedures that would horrify. He’s retired now, still in Jackson Park. He takes walking tours a lot, he said. He finally has time to see the city he helped run.

He alluded to stories that would make this one seem tame. This one stuck out because of the older worker’s shock — not surprise, but palpable shock — that there was no “Chinaman,” that someone got a county job on merit.

“‘Do you think I would pay someone to work here?’” the now not-so-young man said he said.

“I worked for the guy you voted against,” he said. “Jim Ryan was the laziest person to ever draw a state salary.”

He’s older, white, Republican. Lives in the suburbs but retains a broad Chicago accent. He wears a polo shirt and means it.

He worked for years in state government before turning his attention local in the 2000s. He’s a township supervisor now, but worked for Attorney General Jim Ryan for the years leading up to Ryan’s failed run for governor.

Ryan was lazy, the man said. He was lazy and expected things to come to him.

But the rain on the Thompson Center walls was amazing.

The Thompson Center is the big glass UFO plopped downtown to act as the State of Illinois’ Chicago offices. It was a nightmare to work at most days, the man in the polo said.

The state wouldn’t pop for insulated curved glass for the modern architecture window-walls, and the architect wouldn’t flatten the design. So they got the worst of both worlds: non-insulated curved glass. It freezes in winter and burns in summer, he said. That and a 17-story open air atrium make the building a nightmare to heat and cool.

But god, was it pretty when it rained.

He and the other politicos, bureaucrats, officials and staffers would walk out to the atrium, look out over the railings, maybe even try to sneak in areas they shouldn’t.

They would stop the jockeying and shoving and detailed paperwork that make up politics just to gather during thunderstorms and watch rain shimmer over 17 stories of glass.

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but my family bribed Otto Kerner,” she said, laughing a bit nervously.

It was a long time ago. Otto Kerner was governor in the 1960s, dying in 1976 after being released early from prison. He was known as “Mr. Clean” and I’ll admit that this tale from the nervously laughing woman is the first bad word I’ve heard about Mr. Kerner aside from his arrest and dubious conviction.

A relative had run away at 17, the woman’s story started. There was a robbery and one of his new friends pulled a trigger. He hadn’t known, she said. He hadn’t known.

He would have died in Stateville, she said. So the family, mainly her grandmother, gathered $20,000 (about $150K in today’s cash) and bought off the people it would take to get him to either a medium security or juvenile prison.

Maybe the story’s true, maybe it’s not. Maybe Otto Kerner’s reputation as an unfortunate victim was unearned. Maybe the details of the exact official the family bribed got muddled over the years, getting drawn toward the biggest, most famous state politician of the era, like how every fast food urban legend ends up about McDonald’s.

I don’t know. I don’t know any of these, if Kerner was more crooked than common wisdom says, if Jim Ryan was really lazy or just irked the polo-wearer or if county workers actually introduced themselves by comparing political boss “Chinamen.”

They’re just stories I’ve heard while walking around the city.

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