Home of the Cubs, Harry Dresden, deep dish pizza, and hot dogs dragged through the garden. The city where Al Capone became a folk hero. A place where you can visit Sue the Dinosaur, Inez at Graceland, and the oldest tobacconist in America; where the river runs backwards, guns are banned, and shootings are everywhere. Ten percent of the country lives within a hundred miles of here, and the graveyards all vote Democrat.
We joke about it because what’s the choice? There’s Mexican jailers and tinpot dictator kleptocrats and Congressmen who’ll say, “Sure we’re corrupt — but we’re not Chicago corrupt.” One study showed half of all aldermen elected here since 1964 were found guilty of bribery or similar crimes. Another, probably more realistic, found that a third were felons. It’s where Mayor Daley ruled with one fist of iron and the other in your wallet — and after he died they named the courthouse after him.
God, I love this town. The people have such a great sense of humor, ya know?
There’s a common misconception that Chicago corruption is legend, at worst a thing of the past. It’s not true. This is the city that banks and credit card companies from all over the country choose to sue you from — because the courts rule in their favor even when the lawsuit is bogus. It’s not the judge’s fault; the laws are rigged and the decks are stacked, and all Citibank needs to file suit in Cook County is a mailbox and a lawyer.
You’ve heard about Operation Graylord? No? Well, that link’s to the FBI’s blog on it, and it’s fascinating reading. Basically, it’s about how fifteen Cook County judges and forty lawyers (plus another fifty public officials) got taken down on bribery charges through an undercover sting; the trials were still going on when Y2K was a thing. For perspective, that was half the folks on the bench; some said they could have got them all, but I figure there’s always at least one or two honest folks around.
Then there was the Mirage Tavern investigation. Forty years ago, a couple of reporters posed as bar owners in order to get the scoop on the casual corruption and graft on the Chicago streets. Turns out the only people you didn’t bribe were the cops, because if you did they’d keep coming around every month for more. Building inspectors and licensing officials, you’d slip ’em a twenty here and a fifty there and a C-note for something big, and they’d do their jobs and not harass you. And nobody complains because it’s cheaper to pay the inspector off than it is to fix the drains.
We don’t hear much about this these days, but that’s because it’s not news any more. It’s still everywhere, in every big city, and twice as much here in Chicago. And truth be told we don’t really care; it’s a huge problem, but it’s systemic — like taxes, or having herpes. It’s a constant drain and it’ll rub you a little raw, but you get used to it. Because you can’t remember a time without it, you convince yourself it’s the way things ought to be .
Well, it ain’t. People get hurt — real people.
I’m writing all this to tell you a story about a real person. I won’t give you her name; let’s call her B.J.
Now, B.J. had a rough start in life. It happens. Her parents had trouble with alcohol — I won’t go into it, because all you need to know is B.J. is tough; she’s a fighter. Her mother got sick during B.J.’s first year in college and she came back to take care of the family, and then things kept getting worse. But she toughed it out, because family is important. If you need them, they’re there for you, and so you’re there for them — that’s what B.J. believed.
But then her mother died, and her father can’t work. So much for college. But she got a job — didn’t pay well, but enough — and kept going, because what else are you gonna do? And things kinda evened out for a little while.
Some developer had come around while her mom was sick, wanted to buy the house. Now, south of Chicago, there’s a place where there’s more houses falling down than not, and B.J.’s family lived in one of them. It wasn’t much, but it was theirs; and besides, there’s the illness to deal with. So they didn’t sell. Bunch of the neighbors did and moved away, and renters moved in, and the houses were still all falling down.
But not long afterward, the building inspector came around. Not to all the houses; just this one. And it turned out the roof wasn’t up to code, and there was debris under the porch, and it wasn’t set back far enough from the road. You know the drill. I dunno; maybe the developer was his brother-in-law or something; maybe a few bucks changed hands. Most likely both.
Kids go through school believing the government’s here to help and then they get out in the world and find out the government man is here to help himself. It’s a hard lesson and an expensive one. I told you about B.J.; she’s a fighter. She’s also brilliant; sharp mind, quick, clever. But she’s a rule-follower at heart, and she believed in the system. I doubt she even thought to kick the inspector a C-note. Instead, she did what the violation said to do: you go to court.
The judge wasn’t unreasonable, as judges go. What can he do about the inspector? He can’t clean up the system all by himself. But he’s still human. So he accepts the photos of corrections, hears B.J.’s story, cuts her a little slack, and gives her a couple more months to get things fixed.
Except it’s summer, and contractors are expensive – in part because they have to bribe building inspectors to do their jobs, and in part because it’s their busy season and they’ve got other work. It needs to be a rush job and B.J. is over a barrel. But she’s a fighter and a rule-follower, dutiful and doughty and true. So she gets a home equity loan at a ruinous rate of interest, and she pays. And pays. And pays.
Today it’s ten years later, and B.J. still lives in the same house. She’s got a little boy; he’s on the Spectrum, but his father’s family helps out a lot, and anyway she wouldn’t change a thing. Except it would be nice if, instead of living in an $80,000 house with $70,000 in loans, she could be back where she was ten years ago. Maybe finishing college would have helped. Too late to find out now; someone’s got to work and pay the bills.
But B.J. is still a fighter. She’s not giving up, and despite her protestations to the contrary she still believes in things like duty and family and honor. So she’s working hard at a job she excels at but of course can’t pay what she’s worth, and if there’s any justice some rich executive will stumble over her and lure her away with a six figure salary and benefits and stock options.
But you know and I know: There’s no justice. There’s just us.
If I were rich, I’d step in and pay B.J.’s loans off, let her finish her degree, and watch her shine — but I’m not. And even if I were and I did, it’s not enough to just fix the problems one at a time. The whole system here is rigged and people — real people, just like you and me — are getting hurt. That’s just the way it is, they’ll tell you. Can’t fight City Hall.
And when we hear about it, it’s a joke.
God, I hate this city.
Note: “There’s no justice. There’s just us.” That’s Terry Pratchett writing. It’s from the book “Mort”; you should read it. You could learn a lot from Terry, God rest him.