#930: The Ways and Means of Dan Rostenkowski

May 21st, 2018

Dan Rostenkowski owned “Chess” by Murray Head.

A concept album and later musical by lyricist Tim Rice and the B’s from ABBA, it’s mostly known for cheesy ’80s chart-flare “One Night in Bangkok,” an ode to the sexy, seamy world of Southeast Asian underground chess tournaments.

And it was one of the possessions up for grabs at the estate sale of late, disgraced U.S. Rep. Daniel “Rosty” Rostenkowski, D-Illinois.

Dan Rostenkowski died in 2010 after a life that took him as high as the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee and as low as federal prisons in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and a Near West Side halfway house. His official Congressional vehicle’s license plate number was 8. His prison jumpsuit was 25338016.

Over the weekend, the Rostenkowski family held an estate sale — the second in as many months — to try and free themselves from the decades of the late man’s mementos. On Sunday morning, two friends and I found the barely marked door across from Pulaski Park in the former heart of Chicago’s Polish community and went to play among the last of his possessions.

The home was deliriously ’70s, from the paneling in the closed-off kitchen to the massive woodland mural painted on one of the walls. A floor-to-waist-high carpeted family room had been carved from the former Rostenkowski tavern that saw the family’s rise. As a sign of wealth, the walls were mirrored and there were two separate tube televisions positioned from the ceiling.

I learned Dan Rostenkowski liked albums, books and seemingly kept every plaque, trophy and honorary award any political group or golf tournament ever offered. He had so many boxes of his own political signs and buttons the estate sale company was giving them away free with purchase. He had his grandchildren’s Cabbage Patch dolls and his children’s Barbies up for sale with the lot. He had a weathered Chicago flag on a pike-topped pole, the stars and streams so aged the thing looked pink.

My two friends and I danced among it, marveled at trophies, pawed through albums, tried on Press Corps raincoats. One of the friends had been there the day before as well. He had picked us up never-worn sweaters embroidered with “Chairman Dan Rostenkowski Ways and Means Committee.” He bought Rosty’s personal kegerator.

We learned that Rostenkowski kept and framed critical articles. He had a large framed copy of an early ’90s political cartoon of him and the non-worldbreaking President Bush as Laurel and Hardy, with the “Another fine mess” swamp they drove the jalopy into clearly labeled “BUDGET” so as not to tax the Tribune readers’ understanding of metaphor. He had two separate metal plaques made of the same 1985 Jack Higgins Sun-Times cartoon showing “Rusty” turning his back on Chicago political infighting to go play golf.

When home, I found one of the many Rostenkowski labeled envelopes I picked up (because envelopes) was full of newspaper clippings about himself from 1959, his first year in Congress. It included two separate Inez Robb columns taking D.C. to task for exorbitant legislator salaries. It seems newspapers’ efforts to shame and chasten the distinguished gentleman from Illinois became his keepsakes.

At times pawing among the congressman’s life, I felt hilarious. We tried on “Ways and Means” hats and felt the heft of Rosty’s golf clubs.

At times I felt like the crones hocking Scrooge’s bedsheets in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come part of “A Christmas Carol.” Here the charwoman. Here the laundress. Here the undertaker’s man.

A stack of low-digit license plates made me smirk. A built-in bookshelf designed for bound volumes of every National Geographic from 1966 to 2002 filled me with admiration. A wedding dress marked $75 made me want to leave.

The family wants to sell the building, one of the men from the estate sale company said. I found later it had been in the family for generations, was the home of Rostenkowski’s alderman father “Big Joe Rusty” and the family tavern. It was where two precinct captains were shot dead at 6:30 a.m. Aug. 2, 1938 as they sat in watch in a car outside, whatever message their deaths sent to Big Joe lost to the ages.

Heroes past, felons present. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

After our shopping spree, the three of us went to one of the few lingers left of West Town’s Polish community — an old pierogi joint just south of the triangle made of Division, Ashland and Milwaukee, nestled by a late night dance club and an early morning newsstand slinging Polish magazines and the Sun-Times.

Inside, we sat at the counter, across from the microwave, decorative blunderbuss and painting on the mirror of two pheasants. Under an Old Style chandelier hearkening to when blintzes weren’t the only menu item, the back wall was lined with peasant figurines, old clocks, pictures of John Paul II and two old political programs with Dan Rostenkowski’s face on them.

A gregarious, smiling, gray-haired mass of buzzcut and muscles whipped out a pad to take our order. My friend asked about the programs. The man’s face tensed and darkened. He looked down at his order pad.

“He used to sit where you’re sitting,” he said, nodding up at my friend momentarily.

My friend mentioned the estate sale. The man looked off at nothing happening in the corner and said he knew. He asked if we knew Dan Rostenkowski went to prison for a while. I nodded.

“I don’t understand those people,” the old muscle man said. “You have all that money, all that power. Why you steal?”

My friend started to say something the man interpreted as an excuse. The man cut my friend off, brooking no defense of the former neighborhood hero.

“It don’t matter,” he said. “You steal.”

He left to get our soup.

Like 1,001 Chicago Afternoons on Facebook for photos of the sale

Read why the license plates made me smirk

Read about a concert at the Polish Triangle

Read about the only other Chicago newsstand I’m aware of

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