Monday, January 14, 2008
The Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus offers guests an afternoon full of atrocities with 100 years of murder and mayhem
By Carl Kozlowski
Photo by Matt Craig
Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak with Crimebo the Clown
Imagine taking a bus tour of Pasadena that offers a thorough look at the city’s neighborhoods, ranging from the old Millionaire’s Row mansions along Orange Grove Boulevard to small tract-style abodes in the working-class neighborhoods of East Pasadena. You’re surr-ounded by 50 other people eager to learn about the city, and led by two tour guides who are even more eager to teach them.
This may seem like just another blandly pleasant way to pass the time on a lazy weekend afternoon. But if you’re one of the die-hard and morbidly curious people climbing aboard the Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus tour, you’ll find yourself engaged in a five-hour trip through the strangest murders, accidents and outright mayhem that a century of Pasadena history has to offer.
Adding to the fun of the tour — which will be offered again Sunday — is the fact that the two guides in charge of the trip, Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak, inject every gruesome detail with a truly wicked wit, ensuring that the overall mood is more incredulous than morbid. And on Sunday, they’ll be including an appearance by Crimebo the Clown, who has joined what Cooper and Marsak have dubbed the 1947project (the year the body of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia, was found sliced in half) in a bizarre fashion: He is available for birthday parties, at which he will cheerily guide guests through a litany of strange deaths that occurred on their birthdays.
But having established themselves as the murder historians of Los Angeles through their highly popular Black Dahlia and Bunker Hill Crime Bus tours, the duo find walking the delicate tightrope between extreme dark and light is a surprisingly nimble enterprise.
“People want to know what’s real, what really happened. There’s kind of a generalized whitewashing of our society, in which buildings get torn down and big skyscrapers and condos go up and make it look like nothing ever happened here,” says Cooper. “We’ve lost our past, and I think people want to find it again. The appeal is that we’re the stick turning over the stones and finding the bug underneath. And people say, ‘Wow, we really do have a colorful history, but we can get it back.’”
Cooper and Marsak started their quest to shine a light on the darkness of our seemingly civilized society as the lead bloggers of the 1947project Web site, an online venture that selected 1947 as a particularly unsettling year in the city’s history and analyzed the crimes and strange deaths that occurred then on a daily basis.
Cooper’s fascination with the dark side of history arose from being a third-generation Angeleno who found crime to be “a window into everyday social interaction of the past.” She is also trained as a historian and an art historian, and while studying art, she found a strong interest in “creepy subject matter” and wrote her master’s thesis on the subject of visceral arts — “blood and guts imagery” — in postwar art.
“I was interested in artists like a man who did installations in meat lockers in New York City and had high society come down and walk through the meat lockers. I also dealt with a lot of Japanese artists who dealt with the aftermath of atomic explosions,” Cooper says. “My theory was that people were interested in visceral arts because they were looking for the soul. Needless to say, I wasn’t too popular in academia because my ideas were extreme, and while I was too disturbing for academia, I’m apparently not so with the general public.”
Indeed, the attendees on the bus tour seemed to be typical citizens who just happened to harbor an unusual curiosity. And their fascination was fulfilled thanks to the 70-plus tales of death and destruction offered along the way, ranging from a stop outside the home of Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan to a thorough recounting of a 1926 bleacher tragedy at the Rose Bowl Parade that has been conveniently overlooked on the Rose Parade’s historic timeline, despite the fact that dozens were injured and one person was killed.
Other incidents explored include the tale of Marie Baker, whose bedroom mysteriously exploded, hurtling her through the roof of her home before she landed on the street outside, dead but still attached to her mattress. Then there’s the tale of the 1947 Ives & Warren poisoning, in which a man entered the now-defunct Ives & Warren Mortuary in order to drink poison and die without burdening loved ones with corpse transportation issues. In a bizarre twist, the man was found to have emulated one of the mortuary’s owners, who had also committed suicide on the premises three years before.
Add in the George Judd murder, in which the high-society favorite and mortgage firm vice president was revealed to have lived a double life pursuing random sex and bar fights with “rough trade boys” before being killed in mysterious and brutal fashion. Combine that with the bizarre death by explosion of Jet Propulsion Lab pioneer and rocket scientist Jack Parsons, plus the strange end of cult favorite actor Jack Nance (“Eraserhead”) after a morning donut run, and you’ve got a full afternoon of atrocities.
“There are a lot of weird tours around the world, but I don’t know if anyone’s doing exactly what we’re doing. And you have to realize that the sheer number of odd deaths is due to finding aggregate deaths over time rather than a non-stop crime wave,” says Cooper. “But we want to go a lot deeper and explore things that aren’t in the collective memory, and we stayed up many nights poking around digital archives such as that of the LA Times entering the word Pasadena and words like ‘ghastly,’ ‘grisly,’ ‘bizarre’ and ‘severed.’”
The hard work has paid off for college buddies Marsak and Cooper, who met while in college at UC Santa Cruz. While they are not partners in life — in fact, Marsak introduced Cooper to her husband — they are literal partners in crime, thanks to their tours. And as the word gets out and society continues to offer fresh mayhem for their satisfaction, they hope they’ll find plenty of others who share their fascination.
“When people are involved in a crime, they become noticed by the media and it sort of puts a freeze frame on their lives for that moment, and you can see what it’s like for an ordinary person at a moment in time,” says Cooper. “The criminal history of Los Angeles and Pasadena brings the offbeat everyday world that would otherwise be lost into focus.”
The Pasadena Confidential Crime Bus tour will be from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. The cost is $47 and includes beverages and “sugary snacks” in addition to lots of mayhem. For more information and reservations, visit www.1947project.com.
By Carl Kozlowski
There are some things the human body is not meant to do. Racing down 90 miles of desert freeway at 120 mph is one of them.
Unfortunately, I realized this five minutes before I was due to strap on a helmet, twist myself like a pretzel, and wedge my body into the shotgun seat of a Corvette for the most terrifying ride of my life-a run through the Silver State Classic Road Rally, in the heart of Nevada.
Sure, the 'Vette was specially-modified with a roll cage and a safety harnesses. Sure, the man behind the wheel had driven in 14 previous Silver State races. Sure, I had no reason to fear for my life. "Only" one person had ever died in the 15-year history of the event. That is indeed a pretty sterling safety record for a race that takes place twice a year and averages more than 120 cars each time. But…
And so there I was, with five minutes to spare before the race, doubled over inside the narrow confines of a Porta Potty and emptying my breakfast into its gaping hole. I should have known better than to go out there, for I am a 275-pound desk jockey who, until recently, has barely lifted a finger in exercise my entire life.
Three months prior, I had fallen asleep at the wheel of my ratty Toyota Corolla and turned my car into an accordion. Perhaps I was seeking to overcome that memory and reclaim my right to the road, or to exorcise the demon that overtook me anytime I found myself in a fast car since the accident. Either way, I had no time to psychoanalyze, for Jim, the driver, was headed toward me in full-throttle fury, screaming for me to get in the car and looking like he'd turn the Porta Potty upside down if he had to.
I took a deep breath, ran out to the Corvette, wedged my way in, and tried to jam the helmet over my head as Jim strapped my harnesses around me. Of course my helmet wouldn't seem to go on without requiring me to crack my skull, and my harness had to be wedged so tight around my crotch that I was certain I would never father children. (Or maybe Jim was just pissed and making it more painful than it had to be.)
My glasses slipped off my head and hit the floor, but I had no room to bend over and pick them up. I was certain I'd either step on them mid-race or they would become deadly projectiles when we had our inevitable squealing-tire car wreck. I just knew I'd wind up blind by the end of the race-or to be more precise, within the hour. But, there was no point in worrying any more. Jim had roared his car's engine to life, rolled to the line, and we were counting down to the starting signal. When the traffic light at the starting line turned green, I was to hit the timer on his stopwatch and keep my mouth shut.
Green! There went the timer. Bam! My head rocked back into my seat. We were off.
"I used to race motorcycles, and then I road-rallied cars in Bolivia before racing from Ensenada to San Felipe in Mexico each year. We then wondered why no one was doing road races in America," explains Steve Waldman, the polite but tough-talking executive director of the Silver State Classic, who is also a compact barrel of energy. "Having been in the hotel business in Vegas a long time, I knew a lot of people in the state government. When the copper mines shut down around the town of Ely, they needed extra income for the town, so they made the nearby highway available for the race so that racers and their friends would come and spend tourist dollars."
That was back in 1988, and indeed the effort has paid off handsomely for everyone. Waldman estimates that the race has brought in over $14 million in non-gambling dollars to the economically depressed area over the last 15 years. Waldman and an extensive board of nonprofit directors and volunteers organize the race on 90 miles of Highway 318 each May and September. With up to 233 cars participating at its peak and an average of four people traveling in each car, "that's more than 900 people right there each race season, spending a minimum of $300 per person over four days, that's over $300,000 right there in one shot."
When I first heard about the Silver State Classic, giddy visions of automotive anarchy filled my head. In reality, the race is a lot more scientific and refined. Each car is assigned a speed class, ranging from 95 to 180 mph, based on how jacked-up its engine is and how specialized its safety features are. Each speed class is timed out to an exact minute at which the cars should cross the finish line-for instance, 150 mph-class cars should finish the 90-mile race in 36 minutes-and then each individual car tries to cross the finish line at precisely their assigned time. Timers calibrated by Global Positioning System satellites measure each car's finish to 1/10,000th of a second.
"There are three radar points along the way to make sure you're staying within your speed class: one that allows you to order a souvenir printout proving how fast you are racing, one at the finish line to make sure you're crossing without going too fast or too slow in order to hit your time goal, and one that's hidden to just flat-out bust and disqualify speeding drivers," explains Dale Schaub, an eight-time racer who now serves as one of the Silver State's racing instructors. "You can miss your time target by 2/10th of a second and kiss the trophy goodbye."
Each car starts the race one minute apart so that the drivers are able to put a couple miles of distance between one another and limit the chances that cars will bunch up and endanger each other. After all the speed-class cars have finished, one final class of cars starts two minutes apart: the unlimited class, whose drivers are allowed to race as fast as possible in an attempt to flat-out set the fastest time for the race. The record for the Silver State Classic is a car that averaged 207 mph across the entire 90 miles-a feat that also set the Guinness World Record for fastest open-road speed, period.
But even with the race's format of each driver racing against him or herself, the risks are ever-present and extreme. Any curve in the road can result in a spinout, and any spinout can lead to a car hitting rough terrain and flipping over.
There's a reason it costs anywhere from $395 to $695 for drivers to enter the race: someone has to pay for the cost of insurance and the logistics of 285 volunteer course workers, several crews of EMTs, two Medevac helicopters, emergency vehicles and the sheriff's deputies needed to shut down 90 miles of state highway for 9 hours. The costs also include a safety course on the professional speedway at the Derek Daly Racing Academy outside of Las Vegas and a full technical inspection that can eliminate a car and its team for any factor from leaky fluids to imperfect tires.
And what do you get for all the fees, troubles, and the cost of customizing your car to the tune of $50,000-70,000?
"It's not about the money," says Wayne Motes of Tucson, who was part of a four-man crew on a half-ton pickup truck that could go 170 mph. "If you win, you get a commemorative plate. This is about pride, bragging rights, and friendship. What more do you need?"
What I needed was to find someone with fast wheels, an open shotgun seat, and a willingness to have a potentially sniveling copilot along for the ride.
Drivers take on a copilot to navigate and act as lookout, keeping their eyes open for sudden turns, drops, and foreign objects in the roadway ranging from fellow racers' cars to stray parts or the occasional burro. In other words, it was a lot of responsibility for someone to accept if they couldn't promise not to puke.
I was not able to make such a promise, but Waldman, the director, assured me that once I got rolling in the race I would enter a state of "speed hypnosis," in which my body would numb itself to the potential dangers and just accept the fact that it was hurtling through space at 120 mph as a completely natural state of existence. I was assured that I would have my moment of glory.
The road to glory began at about at 8 a.m. Thursday, my first full day in Vegas, when I joined the full class of first-time drivers and navigators for a racing class on the speedway of the Derek Daly Driving Academy. I didn't need to put on a full fireproof suit because we were "only" going 90 mph around the course's rapid-fire twists and turns, but like a kid in a candy store I grabbed one off a wall anyway, slipped it on along with a helmet, and hopped into the passenger seat of a spiffed-up BMW.
In the interest of providing a you-are-there perspective on what it's like speeding on a racetrack for the first time, I switched on my mini-tape recorder before we hit full throttle and recorded my thoughts for your edification:
"Oh shit! Holy fuck! Holy shit! Oh fuck! Is that legal? Are you sure? Is this safe? We're going sideways! What's that mean? Oh, that! Don't do that! That's crazy! Don't do that! Oh shit! Holy fuck!"
Normally my speech is as pure as the Pope's.
The driver-Daly's chief instructor and a former pro racer named Richard Zimmerman-said the most important part of the class was helping new racers learn the impact that G-forces have on the human body. It also was designed to teach how to respond to sudden obstacles in the road, ranging from blown tires to bunnies, and how to absorb the impact of hitting an animal if they simply can't be avoided.
"When you're going that fast, amazing things happen. I've seen a bird get hit and get sucked into a headlight," says Zimmerman, who set the world record for closed-course electric-car racing by zipping along at 110 mph. "In racing, cornering at high speeds makes blood run away from your head, and the bigger you are the faster it happens. You have to be physically fit or it'll wear you out, and if you're physically or mentally tired that's when you'll make mistakes."
One fact gives a pretty thorough depiction of the town of Ely: Stephen King set up shop here at the classic Old West-style Hotel Nevada for six weeks back in 1995 and emerged with a novel he entitled Desperation. Yet if you're of a sunnier disposition than the Master of Horror, you can find all the eccentricities of classic Small Town America - and then some.
Ely is a town with one Catholic Church and two brothels, yet even in the flesh trade times have taken a tumble as the legendary Green Lantern bordello serviced its last customer five years ago. It's the kind of town with an abandoned elementary school but a thriving old-fashioned soda fountain. The mayor works part-time and from home, and the only two bars in sight both offer wet-T-shirt contests and really loud, really bad cover bands for weekend fun. There are no movie theaters, the big prospective teen club sports a sign saying "Opening Someday" and the high school kids cut loose in the fields and mountains on the outskirts of town.
All of these factors point out why the Silver State Classic means so much to the town's 4,119 people. They're proud and excited to see people from all walks of life - doctors, lawyers, mechanics and engineers, even an aerial photographer for the DEA - come from all over the country in all sorts of cars, ranging from a 1935 Dodge to the latest Lamborghinis and Porsches.
But they're most excited by one car in particular, a vehicle that is instantly recognizable throughout the nation and perhaps the world by the Confederate flag on its roof and the "01" emblazoned on its side door. That's right. If you grew up in America from 1977 to 1984-or knew someone who did-you know the car I'm talking about: The General Lee.
I walked past without noticing it on my way back into my hotel, but there was no way I could miss its driver when he stepped into the elevator with me. As a boy in Arkansas, I had grown up believing this guy was the greatest American ever: John Schneider of "The Dukes of Hazzard." Sure, he has made a big comeback playing Clark Kent/Superman's dad on the WB's "Smallville," but if you're from the South he will always be first and foremost Bo Duke.
Ely's nightlife choices consists of two bars with wet T-shirt contests. And both of them had their bartenders reduced to begging for contestants by offering free drinks. When my buddy Earl noticed that the women were expected to dunk their chests into children's' plastic swimming pools, he suddenly thought of his 8-year-old daughter, felt extremely guilty and suggested we find other entertainment. There was only one place left to go: the front bar of the Stardust Ranch, the less-scary-looking of the town's two bordellos. We assumed the place would be packed with dozens of the racers out to have even more fun than would be legal anywhere else.
The vibe of the place was more mid-'70s rec room than actual bar, and any sexual shenanigans were out of sight and hearing out back - unless you counted an Asian woman rubbing up against a guy who looked like he otherwise could be eligible for a Grandpa of the Year award. While Grandpa was considering his thrills, Kelly Gibbs of the Silver State Classic's board of directors tried to explain the appeal of the race.
"The fact is, you've got people with cars capable of going well over 100 mph but nowhere they can safely and legally push their cars to the limit," said Gibbs, who no longer runs in the race personally. "It's one of the last great ways to get a full adrenaline rush for a sustained period of time, and it's a way to challenge yourself and your car and your senses on every possible level in an extreme situation. But when you factor in all our safety precautions, our records are still far safer than any stretch of normal highway in a city like Los Angeles. There's been some spectacular crashes but in reality, this is a very safe event."
Still, the legendary crashes played through my mind: the Porsche that blew a rear tire at 190 and rolled end over end for 100 feet, leaving its driver alive but hospitalized for three months. The guy who blew his front tires out at 200 mph and took more than a mile to skid to a stop. And of course, the greatest tale of all, that of a man named Dennis "Mad Dawg" Antonucci of Huntington Beach, California. Even John Schneider-a man who spent seven years and 154 episodes taking flight in the General Lee-gives the man his props for fearlessness.
"The whole reason I got into this is because I saw a picture of 'Mad Dawg' crossing the finish line with his entire car in flames," said Schneider, incredulously. "My dad's always been into cars and I grew up loving movies like Bullitt, but there's nothing like seeing that happening in real life to make you sit up and take notice and say I've gotta be part of that."
Schneider was in the race not as a gimmick or as a paid promotion for the race, but as a genuine average guy who just happened to drive one of the most famous cars in America. It was more than a little surprising to see a TV legend standing around with his dad, who served as his navigator, mixed in with his fans and fellow racing aficionados.
"Racing fans are the most genuine people in the world. If you're down to earth and just want to be treated like anyone else, they'll respect that and just be your friend and be great to you," he explained. "But if you try to act like you're greater than everyone or something special, they're not gonna tolerate that and you'd find the exact opposite reaction. I've always just seen this as a good job and racing as something I love to do, just like anyone else here."
Schneider was speaking Saturday afternoon from the town's high school football field, where all 122 racecars had come for their technical checkups and the drivers were showcasing their cars for each other and the townspeople. Sure, there were dozens of cars tricked out, painted flashy and ready to rock the road, but at that moment only one car mattered other than the General Lee: "Mad Dawg's" Pantera. Talking with him proved to be a lesson in just how serious and risky this race could be.
"This is the same car that got burned up back in '99, when I caught fire at nearly 200 mph with a mile to go before the finish line. I knew that if I tried to engage the fire compression system it wouldn't work unless I completely stopped, and that they had safety crews with fire extinguishers on the other end of the finish line, so I just decided to go for it," recalls Antonucci. "I crossed the line at 170 mph, completely covered in flames, and I remember hearing a lady screaming 'Why doesn't he get out? Why doesn't he get out?"
He did make it out, his fireproof suit limiting his burns to his wrists, but his car seemed lost. But because the car was one of only 4,000 to enter the US during its early-70s production cycle, Antonucci was determined to save it and try racing again. He received donations and encouragement from thousands of racers around the country and had the car back on the road a year later.
"I was scared to do it again, but it's like when you get thrown from a horse you have to get back up or else you're always going to look over your shoulder wondering," said Antonucci. "I was a Vietnam vet and was a commercial diver so I grew up in formative years in extreme professions, so I was looking for something exciting to do and thought what could me more exciting than racing on an open mountain road?. Its the danger and excitement."
As my date with destiny and potential disaster approached, I had the sober business of my own final preparations. There was a medical information form to fill out that asked for our blood type and next of kin information; I couldn't remember my blood type and was damned if I was going to terrify my parents by asking them about it. They thought I was just hanging out in Vegas, not potentially hanging out of the wreckage of an overturned car in the desert.
I also had experienced the frustration of finding myself turned down at the tech inspection. My car was fine - I was supposed to ride along in a Corvette convertible, whose driver cackled "What good is a soft top gonna do you anyway?" The problem lay in my fireproof suit from the racing academy, which had a tear in the right elbow. I thought it was no big deal, but my driver laughed again and said "It's not likely we're gonna catch on fire, but if we do, even a small hole like that can lead to you cooking like a hamburger."
I was told I could come back and ride in the next race in May, but that things weren't looking good for my riding shotgun now. I had to either find a way to patch the material with the high-tech cloth designed to make it fireproof or find a car in a slower speed class that would be less likely to blow up. I was bumped down from the Corvette at 175 mph to another 'Vette in the 115 class.
And so it was that I was teamed up with Jim Marz-Vietnam vet, retired cop, beer drinker extraordinaire. (Albeit that last quality only came out after race time.) A burly tank of a man with a boisterous laugh, Marz told me to be ready at 6 a.m. Sunday for the ride out to the starting line. A long night lay ahead-meetings for all the racers and navigators to hear the final rules of the race, a separate meeting for press to learn how to take pictures of the speeding cars without becoming road kill, a festive dinner in the lavish basement of the Hotel Nevada.
At midnight, the only sounds on the streets poured forth from the bars, and the racers were nowhere to be found. It was time for them to sleep and rest and dream of fast open roads and trophies to be won. But for me, a new guy with fear in his veins, sleep would be hard to come by.
It's 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, and I'm in Jim Marz's Corvette, the world a blur as we shoot through the desert at a speed I could only dream of. I am doing all in my power to just maintain my composure and keep my pants clean-on the inside. My breath is quick yet measured, pressed up against the inside of the helmet, fists clenched in balls of tension, my stomach doing flip-flops. Mentally, however, I'm starting to feel the speed hypnosis-my mind tuned to a Zen-like state in which I would be hard-pressed to freak out verbally if my life depended on it.
Meanwhile, Marz is the picture of calm. He's been down this road before, literally, many times, and is confidently engaged in a race against himself - hands firm on the wheel, eyes no doubt locked in a steely gaze behind the shade of his helmet visor. This is what it all comes down to for the people involved, more than the car shows and camaraderie, the costs involved and the daunting dangers that lurk around every corner.
And as he lurches through an area called The Narrows, where the road tightens and turns in what seems quite risky fashion, Marz punches a fist in the air in quiet exhilaration. A bigger punch comes when he crosses the finish line, along with a cackle of pure satisfaction. Marz looks at his timer and mutters because he is late by six full seconds-an eternity in this race, where hundredths of a second often separate winners from losers.
Yet as Marz struts over to his fellow drivers for a celebratory cold one, I step out of the car to find my entire body is about to explode. For the second time in one day I make a beeline for a Porta Potty.
Later I learn that my switch into the slower car had been a lucky one after all. It turned out that Jim Marz had picked his 115 mph speed class because there were only three cars in it, period. Six seconds be damned, we were guaranteed to win. And I've got a giant silver plate with an engraved three-dimensional car leaping out of it to prove it.
Laughing It Off
By Carl Kozlowski
Ray Hanania was born and raised in Chicago but grew up hearing the story of how his father's older brother Joseph drowned in the Jerusalem quarry in 1926 because no one would help him. "The Jews thought he was Muslim, Muslims thought he was Jewish, and the Christians thought he was neither, even though he was a Greek Orthodox Christian. The tensions were that bad that no one would help a man even when he was dying."Hanania's father had another brother working at a country club in Chicago, and he decided the tragedy was a sign to leave the pointless and terrible religious warfare of the Middle East behind. But nearly 80 years later, the legacy of that awful day has become the focal point of Ray Hanania's life, as this Palestinian-American reporter-turned-public-relations-wizard-turned-standup comic has found a unique way to educate people about the Middle East crisis: by hitting stages nationwide to crack jokes about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.Hanania has seized upon an opportunity to provide a moderate voice in the Arab world, a task he likens to "scaling Mount Everest in your underwear." He has become one of just a dozen Arabic comics nationwide, parlaying his background as a former award-winning reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times to provide a level of added credibility that garners him access to college campus audiences.Atop it all, he writes a weekly newspaper column on life from the Arab point of view that is syndicated in more than a dozen major cities including Detroit, St. Louis and New York. But even these efforts pale in comparison to the next step in his plans: a bold and ambitious trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank with an evenly matched team of Jewish and Arab comics aiming to perform the first-ever mixed comedy shows ever held on both sides of that deadly divide.The trip, Comics for Peace, is so daring that former "60 Minutes" producer David Lewis and acclaimed comedy filmmaker Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Analyze This) are raising $1.5 million to shoot a documentary about it and are shopping it to heavyweights including HBO, PBS and A&E. Even as the Middle East grows potentially more dangerous with the Israeli assassination of Ahmed Yassin, Hanania believes he can bring hope and peace through laughter to a region that has seen only tears for far too long."I use journalism and comedy as a message to define the moderate Arab voice, and that's all I've been doing all my life," said Hanania. "There's room for good leaders in the Arab community, but the section for lousy leaders is filled up. Comedy is an instrument to reach people and touch them, and if you can touch people with humor you can touch them and get their understanding."One other reason that Hanania, 51, can understand the hostilities of the Middle East so well is that he has seen the ugliness of racism in ways both subtle and strong. Growing up in the South Shore Valley area of Chicago's South Side, he was originally surrounded by a broad mix of Palestinians, Jews and Eastern European immigrants, and at first everyone seemed to get along.Then the Six Day War exploded in the West Bank in 1967, bringing Arab-Jewish tensions to the surface in his neighborhood for the first time. After that, the "white flight" following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King (and the subsequent race riots) ripped apart what remained of the area's fragile unity."You'd go to bed saying goodnight to your neighbors and when you'd wake up the white people were gone and you have black neighbors. Everyone was ashamed of what they were doing, but the realtors were scaring us because my family were the blackest people in the neighborhood before that," he recalls. "It was a terrible, ugly thing to run, and the ironic thing is we ran to the suburbs - an area that treated Arabs as badly as they did black people. One day I was walking down the street with my blues guitar when a man ran out of his house, put his hands around my neck and said he didn't move to the suburbs to be around a nigger. Then he threw me on a bus and showed me his police badge."That's the real tragedy of the Middle East: people hate us both, Arabs and Jews, more than anyone else in the world, but we're too busy killing each other to realize it and do anything to stop it."While studying premed at Northern Illinois University in 1972, Hanania was in danger of being drafted for the Vietnam War and instead enlisted in the Air Force, thinking he could steer clear of the Asian conflict. He guessed right, but as Middle East tensions continued to flare he was asked by his superiors if he would follow orders and defend Israel if American troops were called in to take sides there."I thought morons, I joined the Air Force to defend America and you ask if I can be trusted. And it was thrown in my face to think about the Middle East and being an Arab and would I defend Israel," recalled Hanania. "When I got out, I started writing letters to the editor and would get published in Time and Newsweek because I was one of the few Arab-American letter writers. Suddenly I realized this was where power was - communications - so I switched my major and within a year I was hired by the Southtown Economist newspaper."During his seven years at that paper and five more at the Chicago Sun-Times, Hanania became a star reporter at Chicago's city hall - garnering several of the city's prestigious Lisagor Awards for his journalism at the same time that he was named president of the Arab American Congress for Palestine, the largest Palestinian organization in America. He was taking on heavyweights like Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban in PBS debates and winning, throwing viewers and his opponents for a loop by offering a different kind of Arab than mainstream Americans had ever seen before: one who knew American culture and how to apply American reasoning to Middle East arguments."Most of the Arabs people had seen were foreign born and couldn't even speak English, and I don't think other Arab speakers even knew that a double play was," he explains. "If you can't connect with a simple concept like that, then people don't want to hear from you. Americans don't like foreigners, they don't like strangers."Hanania's journalism career finally hit the end of the line in 1992 when he got caught in the middle of a showdown between Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and City Treasurer Miriam Santos. He had left the city hall beat a year before to cover county politics, but when he and Santos started dating, he was accused of a conflict of interest. He claims the Sun-Times was pressured to fire him due to his years of City Hall exposes; he later sued them for wrongful dismissal and won a settlement.The one logical move he could take was entering public relations, the refuge of many a former reporter. He was ready to drift peacefully away into the shadows, just like the days of his pre-med youth, and for nearly a decade he did. On a couple of occasions, he was invited to the Clinton White House as a panel member discussing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in 1997 he married his wife Alison, who is of Jewish descent.But then a distinctly unfunny moment in history propelled him into his current comedic mission: September 11. Suddenly, after a life spent entirely in America - as an Air Force veteran and an award-winning reporter and visits to the White House - Ray Hanania found himself labeled an outsider, berated by strangers as one of "them," the Arab terrorists who had brought such horrors to our borders.He received e-mail death threats from a neighbor who was dumb enough to sign the notes; he went to his local shopping center and saw a white Ford truck with graffiti painted in puce that read "If you wanna see jahad (sic) or Ala (sic) mess with an American"; and Hanania found himself stopped and questioned by the new security men in his own office building."Did the guy with the truck really think Osama Bin Laden was gonna shop at the local mall and read it, or was it an expression of his unbridled hatred from him knowing that there were a lot of Arabs living in the neighborhood?" asks Hanania. "I realized that people were letting emotion get the best of them. So I realized you can get to someone like that by shocking them back, and that comedy's a shock to the system and a good journalist knows how to use humor."Hanania's final leap into performing standup came after a luncheon he attended at Chicago's Columbia College that fall, when a student approached him and "asked why I killed all those people in New York." Rather than hanging his head in shame or reacting in anger, Hanania stunned the student by responding with humor and gained the upper hand. More students listened in, laughed and told him he should try performing in comedy clubs.After just three open mike appearances, Hanania short-circuited a process that usually takes years of grueling rejection and asked for an audition at the city's primary club, Zanies. The results surprised audiences so much that he has since performed more than 30 shows at the venue, noted by USA Today as one of the Top Five Comdey Clubs in the Nation.Emboldened by this success, he created Comics for Peace - the organization he's using now to bring Arab and Jewish comics together to shock the system where it counts, directly overseas, in the heart of the West Bank. The idea for the humanitarian venture came when Hanania heard about an incredible humanitarian gesture from Hadassah Hospital on the Israeli side of Jerusalem."The niece of a friend of mine who is Arab got cancer on the West Bank, and she couldn't get treatment except at Hadassah Hospital, and I was surprised she got it there. My 9 year old cousin got leukemia and also got treated at Hadassah, and I wanted to do something to thank them for rising above the politics to do something good for children," he explains."I said I'd like to bring some comedians to perform free to raise money to care for Arab and Jewish kids. It's built from there. Seeing the Hamas leader's killing is depressing because timing is important and I understand. Comedy For Pece is going to happen; you have Jews and Arabs on a stage doing something together, it contradicts what people expect. That's positive, and that's giving hope."If you're constantly consumed by hatred, you can't live. But if you laugh, you break out of it and you can live," he concludes. "Maybe one spark starts a bigger fire of hope."Ray Hanania's web page is www.hanania.com.
KIDS, HERE"S the story of my journey to the roof of Sears Tower (not the observation deck - the ROOF), tales from a crazed emergency operator and the lady who has to record people's complaints about getting sick in Chicago restaurants. Trust me, you don't want HER job...
Punching the clock on some of Chicago's oddest jobs
By Carl Kozlowski
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: Face it: work sucks. And in the nineties it seems you're not well adjusted unless you hate your job. But have you ever wished you could scale the side of the Sears Tower'battling heat, rain and gusting winds'while getting paid to live a daily adventure? How about listening to crisis after crisis for hours on end? Or having to ask complete strangers about their most private bodily functions in order to determine if they've been poisoned? And did you realize you could get a job smelling the city's water supply?
There are plenty of people doing crazier things than you are for a living and getting paid good money for it too. So quit complaining about how boring your job is and come along for a ride on the wild side of the workplace.
Al Gehrke has a job that seems so risky it would give most people vertigo. As one of the chief building engineers for the Sears Tower, he spends each night supervising crews of men whose job is washing and replacing each of the 16,000 windows in the North America's tallest building.
That means he's literally on top of the world every day, and with a shift that stretches from 4pm to 4am (not counting overtime), he's privy to Chicago's most intimate and spectacular views of sunsets and sunrises. His job is also one of the most overlooked in the city. Just as Disney doesn't want visitors to see its cleaning crews scrubbing down the Magic Kingdom, Sears Tower management wants tourists to think the building remains a perpetually clean monument to mankind's ingenuity. Thus all cleaning, inside and out, takes place in the dead of night.
"The whole cleaning rigs are dull black, so they're inconspicuous when it's on the side of the building," says Gehrke. "If people could see the rigs, pedestrians and drivers would stop to look, and the next thing, you'd have accidents everywhere."
Keeping crowds away also helps maintain an extra level of caution during the Tower's mammoth window replacement project. The windows haven't been changed since the building was finished in 1974, and it's easy to understand why: The panes weigh 200 pounds apiece, requiring six men to maneuver and seal each one into place. Yanking the windows out means that an extra crew of movers has to empty out each night's scheduled offices to prevent furniture and paperwork from being sucked into the outside world.
The team makes it through eighteen windows a night, spending at least thirty minutes on a single one. The windows are replaced only in the summer months due to weather concerns, meaning that it will take crews a full eight years (till 2006) to finish. And on top of the sheer risk and monotony of it all, there's the fact that, despite having a phone on board their sliding platforms, the guys are only allowed to use it for emergencies rather than for calling friends and saying, "Hey, guess where I am?! Sliding down the side of the Sears Tower!"
"The phones are the main means of communication between the building offices and supervisors and the platforms," Al says. "But we did have a guy order a pizza from a platform once. When it arrived he got busted, but we only scolded him. He just thought it would be funny for the pizza man to hear he'd have to deliver it to a guy hanging off the side of the Sears Tower's sixtieth floor."
Safety precautions for window crews include the provision that no one works outside during a storm or when the winds are greater than 25 miles per hour, requiring Al and his fellow crew leaders to become naturally gifted meteorologists. In fact, while out on the fiftieth floor, we witness a phenomenon: While sheets of rain cascade down on the city, we stay dry'thanks to the fact that the raindrops are being completely deflected by the fifty-nine higher floors on the north side of the building.
Up on the roof, there's a funny thing: On what once was the world's tallest building there are no fences or platforms, nothing to keep you from falling or jumping with the greatest of ease. The fact that no one has ever plummeted off the building is a testament to the Tower's strict security precautions, which include secret elevators, hidden staircases, coded doors and cameras that would make the Pentagon proud.
"My wife worries a little bit every time I come up here, but I love everything about this job," says Al. "The views are terrific, and you never get tired of them."
Sorry, wrong number
"A lot of the calls I get are just crazy, like people saying they've been throwing up for three days. If you've been throwing up for three days, why aren't you already in the emergency room?" says Janice, a twentysomething operator at one of the city's 911 centers.
"Then you've got the people who call in with various foreign objects stuck in their body, like a pen wedged in their ear. You have to ask questions like, 'Did you fall on it?' and they say 'No' sarcastically, like you're the one who's crazy."
Janice has only been on the job for a year, but she already possesses the world-weary resignation of a veteran. After all, she's listened to an unceasing array of the worst atrocities humanity has to offer, and very few callers bother to thank her for helping them round up support from the police and fire departments.
Instead, the injured ingrates often unleash a hailstorm of profanity. Granted, they're often in pain, but there is a list of questions that Janice and her fellow dispatchers have to run through in order to determine whether to send in fire trucks, police cars, ambulances or the National Guard. And they do have to screen out the nut cases.
"Ten percent of the people are calm if you're lucky, but a lot of them are just screaming 'Get the police!' fifty times without explaining," she says. "The funniest ones are people who call from the pay phones at halfway houses and mental wards, but you've got to let them go quick so you don't block the people who are really needing to call."
Working the 9:30pm to 6am overnight shift, Janice has found that the public's behavior turns as dark as the night sky. Surrounded by forty operators per shift, a crew total matched by each of the city's thirteen police zones, the calls come fast and furious with even "slow" periods averaging a call every three minutes. She receives two days off after every six days on, often leaving her with prime nights like Monday and Tuesday to party.
Surprisingly, most calls fall into relatively few categories, such as domestic violence and requests for standard ambulance service. The most common are the nuisance complaints from people railing against the loud music of neighbors and gang members hanging out on the street. Yet thankfully, there is blessed comic relief in the bizarre calls that are too funny (albeit painful) for words. Take the lady who called to report a curling iron stuck up her butt.
"Normally the police wouldn't have gone on that kind of call, but they went because they just wanted to see it," she recalls. "I personally wouldn't have called an ambulance for that. I would've just called up someone trusted to help be get it out, 'cause God, an ambulance would be embarrassing!"
Water, water everywhere
Chicagoans love their water, draining the Lake Michigan supply an average of 700 million gallons per day. But with a constantly replenishing supply of sixty trillion gallons available in the lake, there's plenty for the Chicago Department of Water to work with.
Their main base is the Jardine Water Purification Plant, which occupies 66 acres of heavily guarded land near Navy Pier. Its 400 employees literally work 24-7 to keep the flow going, although the one aspect beyond their apparent control is ComEd's ever-popular blackouts. If power is cut to the pumping stations (which is almost impossible but nearly happened in August), good luck slaking your thirst.
A tour of the plant (which are available to the public on a smaller scale) not only offers a great chance to put on a hard hat, but also a sense of the impressive effort involved in getting a swig from your sink. Water is first sucked in by several giant concrete structures called intake cribs, located a few miles off the city shores, and pushed through tunnels built 180 feet below the lake and into eight shore gates below the plant.
After six chemicals including fluorine and chlorine are added, water is sloshed through mixing basins that properly distill it and then drop it into settling basins before it's filtered through several layers of sand and gravel. Finally, it passes through thirty million-gallon reservoirs located beneath adjoining Olive Park and scattered pumping stations before shooting along the city's 4,200 miles of pipes.
The plant is packed with odd jobs. There are guys who ride oversized tricycles, delivering packages from one end of the monolithic structure to the other. There are guys who pull used tires, dead fish and other oddities off a post-filter conveyor belt of Lake Michigan's lost treasures and toss the goods into giant trashcans. And there are those who volunteer for the weekly smell-and-taste panel that determines whether the water bouquet has been exuding too strong of a chlorine or zebra-mussel odor.
But the king daddy of all weird jobs in the water department are the guys who spend their summers doing painting and carpentry work on the Alcatraz-style intake cribs. The cribs, two 100-year-old concrete cylinders joined by a 100-foot-long bridge, lie seven miles out into Lake Michigan and are just barely visible from the end of Navy Pier. The men literally live their jobs, spending Monday through Friday on the cribs because of the hardship involved in tugboating them there each day in time for their 7am shift. They paint the century-old, silo-like structures from 7am-3:30pm in a several-week-long annual maintenance drive.
The accommodations are anything but luxurious, with spartan bedrooms complete with gray walls, gray floors and metal framed beds, which, when combined with the isolation, whipping winds and toilets that incinerate bodily waste rather than adding it to the lake, seem a lot like prison. And then they have to contend with the infestation of pigeon crap and flies on the outside walkways. But these men seem to love their work. Except for one particularly unnerving evening "I was asleep one night at three in the morning when I jumped awake and found a man standing at the end of my bed, dripping wet and pleading, 'Help me,'" recalls Jed. "His sailboat had capsized six hours ago, and he'd managed to swim to the crib and climb onto our deck and straight into our quarters. A crib seven miles offshore is the last place you expect someone to show up in your bedroom, so it taught us to lock our doors even there."
Although working on the water all week might turn the steadiest stomach, Daisy Ross probably has the most nauseating job in Chicago. As a Communicable Disease Control Investigator for the city's Department of Health, she asks some incredibly personal questions to those who call to complain about throwing up a cheese pizza.
Daisy has the sweet voice of the world's most understanding school nurse. It's a trait necessary for guiding gastronomically distressed callers through a fifty-question gauntlet used to determine if their illnesses are self-induced, fake complaints or indeed the restaurant's fault. Despite the fact callers are lodging complaints, they still get remarkably offended as Ross explores their gastric distress.
"I've been cussed out, but I always tell people 'God bless you,'" says Ross. "If I can get them to understand why I'm asking about their diarrhea, then they'll calm down."
Ross is one of eight investigators working the phones in the department, with each handling at least 300 cases a year. They prepared to deal with Class 1 reportable diseases such as meningitis, typhoid, anthrax ("which is thankfully something we don't have in America"), cholera and the dreaded plague'in other words, the worst illnesses known to man.
If found in hospitals and labs, these diseases must be reported to the department within twenty-four hours to warn medical professionals against a potential outbreak'thus the need for every possible avenue to be explored.
"The first thing you want to know is an in-depth description of what the person ate, and compare it to the menu of the restaurant," explains Ross. "Second, you want to know what kind of symptoms they had before you get graphic. Then you're asking what the diarrhea looked like and smelled like, and how often they went to the bathroom."
So has Ms. Ross changed her eating habits since joining the department? After all, it would be perfectly understandable if people in her position chose never to eat outside of their own highly sanitized kitchen again.
"There are certain places I will not go to eat, certain food I wouldn't buy for my house, like chitlins, which are just the entrails of animals," she says. "Then of course, I won't eat mountain oysters." Mountain oysters? "Hog nuts. I don't eat that," she says.
Daisy signed on with the health department in 1973, after training as a nursing aide at Malcolm X College. When she moved into her current job in 1989, Ross was at first nervous about asking strangers about their personal business. But in the twenty-six years since, Ross has seen and heard it all: about a mouse in a burger, another mouse in a potato chip bag, and even a toenail in a pizza.
Then, of course, there are the mystery calls from allegedly disgruntled food-factory employees who claim they have exacted such revenge as peeing in a vat of canned soup or vomiting in a vat at a starch factory. But while she believes (and hopes) that such calls are false, there was one disturbingly provable call.
"The freakiest call I ever handled was one from a person who bit into a [cookie] and almost broke a tooth," she recalls. "They discovered someone else's tooth already in there. They called us to investigate, although the staff at the company's 800 number might have been as logical a choice." These are all heartwarming tales, which Ross has shared with her four children's classmates as a recurring member of career day. Before I set her free to fight the good fight against diseases again, I ask her the two questions that have troubled connoisseurs since Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle": What's really in hot dogs? And does she refuse to eat them?
"I've heard they put animal lips and all the things they don't want to throw away in hot dogs," she says, adding with optimism, "But I love 'em. I don't say anything bad about hot dogs."
Check out some of the oddest jobs around
By Carl Kozlowski
.. Begin Story -->SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: Imagine dishing out 10,000 meals and making just two dollars a day. Or having twenty minutes to run into the midst of raging chemical fires and rescue people before your oxygen tank runs out.
Now picture yourself as a Playboy photographer. Or being swarmed by poop-spraying penguins. How about blasting ovens to carry on the chimney-cleaning tradition set by the beloved Dick Van Dyke?
These are actual jobs performed by real people across Chicago. While most of us toil quietly behind computers, or suck up to customers as retail staffers, there are hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people in our city with truly odd jobs.
Come punch the clock with five of these people.
WATER SPORTSMost kids love animals, and many entertain fantasies of working with exotic species as a vet or a dolphin trainer riding atop God's most slippery creatures as they arc through the water. But only a lucky few who grow up and apply for a job in a field like aquatic animal training will get their foot in the blow hole.
Pete Davey is one of the chosen breed. As a senior trainer and lead caretaker of the beluga whales at the Shedd Aquarium for the past eight years, he has built a career as a real-life, aquatic Dr. Doolittle.
"It's a tough field because there's only about 1,000 jobs like this nationwide, and 1,000 applicants for each one of those jobs," says Davey, who gets invited to every show-and-tell his kids have. "It's funny because you really have to love animals to handle the time commitment involved."
Davey starts his day at 6:30am with paperwork before supervising the morning's ninety-minute food preparation for the animals. More than 1,800 pounds of "restaurant-quality" seafood (to minimize the chance of bacterial infection) are sorted by ten staffers and volunteers.
The most involved feeding experience of the morning takes place in the penguin exhibit, where thirty-seven birds waddle around each day wearing numbered, color-coded ear tags to ensure they receive their own special diets. Protected by a thick inner coat and a waterproof outer coat designed to keep me from freezing if I fall into the penguin pool, I'm led into the 37-degree habitat with Davey's warning: "Penguins will walk across your feet and tug at your coat. Don't respond or they'll peck at you instead of eating their food."
Penguins aren't the peaceful, silent creatures you see from a distance in documentaries on Antarctica. Instead, they swarm around strangers and unleash a horrendous braying noise. And watch where you're stepping the next time you find yourself enclosed with the aerially challenged birds. Penguins produce a lot of guano, shooting it out without compunction. Hitting you is not their concern. But that's nothing compared to watching penguin parents feed their young. The babies peck and harass their parents while waiting for nourishment. Then daddy leans in and swallows their mouth before spewing his own regurgitated breakfast, a stringy, mucous-like string of freshly digested parent food, down their gullets.
As I run from the habitat, Davey invites me to stick around for the beluga whale feeding. Armed with the promise that I won't be seeing any more gastric fluids this morning, I wade into the water. While I don't see any food (the whales are fed during the public training sessions), I am invited to stick my arm down the whale's mouth and stroke its tongue while Davey promises to keep its mouth open. Even if he can't keep its mouth pried open, I probably won't be hurt anyway, because beluga whales only have a few, very small teeth.
Having successfully kept my arm intact, Davey reveals his secret. "Peacefulness is achieved through trust and building a relationship with the animals firsthand," he says. "Once you learn to work with them, you can even turn them over and take a blood test from their tail."
FLESH FOR FANTASYUnfortunately, the next odd job holder doesn't invite me for any hands-on training at his craft. "The first reaction I get from people who hear about my job is that I'm a pervert or a sexist," says Playboy photographer Victor Sanabrais. "But the men usually say, 'Wow, you must love your job!'" Taking 500 pictures a day on location, 28-year-old Sanabrais analyzes negatives and camera positions the way another man might study a stock portfolio. But Sanabrais realizes he's in a business where the commodities are women.
"People who don't understand the business think we all have orgies and do drugs, but it's just a business to us," he says. "You can find bad elements in any business, but when I'm working I'm completely focused on creating beautiful images. It's only after the shoots, when I'm studying which negatives to choose, that I step back and say 'Wow. I'm really lucky to be doing this.'"
Sanabrais chanced into the business. He grew up in Bloomingdale with "very open" parents who allowed him and his older brother to read Hef's guide to lusty living, then attended chiropractor college. His rescue came through a summer job as an assistant to another photographer of nudes, from whom he learned not only about photography, but also about how to work with models in a revealing way.
"There's a right way and a wrong way to do this, because positive energy makes the difference," he explains. "You could say 'Stick out your ass,' but you should say 'OK, push out your tush a little more, that'll make your curves more visible.'"
In fact, much of a typical 9-to-5 shoot is taken up with such mundane details as makeup and styling, as well as the infamous seductive props. Finding the right location can be tough, although several of the city's finer dining establishments have secretly thrown open their doors for after-hours shoots.
The most difficult part of the job lies in finding a nice way to coat the truth when a prospective model doesn't live up to the magazine's standards. And mishaps can occur in the midst of even the most intense shoots.
"We once had a woman lather herself with baby oil before having her pose climbing across furniture," he recalls. "Instead of using a sofa, I said 'let's find something else this time,' and the model picked an orange plastic chair that was kind of like an inflatable beanbag seat.
"I got the camera ready and told her to climb onto the chair. Problem was, she'd gotten a little too slick with the oil and she slid right off crashing into the floor. Needless to say, that didn't make the centerfold."
SOOT SUITYou remember "Mary Poppins," the wondrous tale of Julie Andrews as the nanny who flies with her umbrella and sings with cartoon animals. The coolest of all Disney kid flicks also features Dick Van Dyke as the world's most talented chimney sweep, creating an indelible impression of sweeps as men who love to sing and dance.
There are 3,000 fully licensed sweeps in America, including 34-year-old Bill Majewski of Arlington Heights. As the proprietor of City Chimney Sweeps, Majewski and partner Howard Thompson blast potentially deadly soot from Chicago chimneys and send nesting critters packing.
"People always wonder how you get into doing this, but I just answered an ad for chimney sweep school," says Majewski. "I was a carpenter and wanted something to pick up money in the winter months, but I've been so busy that I never went back."
That was four years ago, and now Majewski works fifteen-hour days, six days a week, on his mission to prevent Chicagoans from getting carbon-monoxide poisoning or burning down their homes. For doing the dirty deed, he gets $150 per chimney.
The six-foot-plus Majewski never actually slides down the chimney or sings on the rooftops. Using a carwash-size vacuum tube to suck the muck, he unspools an absurdly long brush from a wheel to dust off the walls before using a dental-style scraping device to rub off the ground-in dirt. Throughout the process, he wears a three-layer mask to block the soot from entering his breathing passages. Once finished, he climbs onto the roofs and checks the results from the top down.
"My worst experience was when I saw a raccoon inside a chimney and tried to push it up and out of the top," he recalls. "Instead, the raccoon plunged down and landed on my arm. I screamed and ran into the next room, where the homeowner asked what the hell was going on. When I tried to explain it to her, the raccoon had already run back up the chimney. I told her that one way or another, she'd gotten rid of it."
CHEMICAL DEPENDENCEPerhaps the most dangerous job in Chicago is performed by the fire department's Hazardous Materials Unit. The brave band of thirteen firemen responds to the cases that less hardy souls pull back from: bomb threats, explosions and chemical fires.
The unit has been in place since 1985, and, according to Haz Mat leader Captain Gene Ryan, it's the group that takes the most time to assess a situation before plunging into the heart of a fire. "Our big rig carries over a million dollars in equipment ranging from cell phones, computers and fax machines to dozens of special firesuits designed to ensure no vapors get in or out," says Ryan. "[With the suits,] that means [the men are] safe from being contaminated by the chemicals they're dealing with, but it also means that when their oxygen tanks run out, they won't be able to breathe."
This is perhaps the ultimate threat that the Haz Mat unit faces. Amid the tensions of evacuated citizens and potentially dozens of other fire and safety officials, Haz Mat crew members don seventeen-layer spacesuits, strap on oxygen tanks and attempt to rescue people and douse flames, all within twenty-minute time frames.
Each oxygen tank has forty minutes of air, the extra twenty-minute stretch given over to washing the suit off in a 200-gallon decontamination pool so the occupant can climb out safely. Once the fireman's vital stats are checked, the entire process starts over. Four Haz Mat members work each eight-hour shift, and some situations require more than twenty-four hours to contain.
"We had a potential biological bomb to get rid of on the South Side a couple weeks ago," recalls Ryan. "One minute we're relaxing at the station, the next we're spending twelve hours getting rid of one bomb and trying to determine whether another was elsewhere in the vicinity."
And while the job requires extremely understanding spouses and families to cope with the daily risks involved (three firemen have been killed this year), the Haz Mat team hasn't forgotten to keep a sense of humor as well.
"I remember finding a hanging victim after two hot summer weeks in an attic," recalls member Kirt Jenssen. "I can't really blame the people thinking they smelled something poisonous up there. And of course there was the man who was so drunk that he forgot he was on the third floor when he tried to sneak out on his wife through the window."
SLAMMER TIMEAdmit it. We're all curious about what it's like to go to prison. What would force us there? How would we find a way to survive? And, most importantly, could we handle the food?
I satisfy this morbid curiosity by calling Joan Stockmal, public information officer for the Cook County Department of Corrections. Though possessing the motherly air of Barbara Bush, Stockmal knows how to be no-nonsense after 4 1/2 years in the prison business.
"You can never be too careful," offers Stockmal by way of explanation. Indeed. Two sets of doors with I.D. checkpoints lead into each wing of the prisons, which are further joined by a complex maze of underground tunnels to ensure that prisoners have no direct escape route. Deep within the heart of Division Two lies the kitchen. It is here that I am issued a uniform shirt along with a hairnet, plastic gloves and a body-length plastic apron.
I am about to dish out dinner for 10,000 inmates ranging from petty thieves to hardened killers. The assembly line processes every daily meal, racking up yearly totals of more than a million. The men in the line volunteer for the work to get out of their cells, and for their efforts, make $2 a day.
Standing next to random "detainees" (the official prison term), I am handed a scoop and told to slap butter onto the passing trays.
But first, I have to get to the assembly line. Escorted by a guard, I am immediately spotted by the veteran inmate kitchen staff and greeted with bone-chilling cries of "New meat! New meat!" Are they calling out for more food supplies? Probably not. I dollop butter for the next two hours, continuously checking my watch.
Problem is, I can't quite get the hang of releasing the scooped butter. The guy next to me takes the scoop from my hand and mumbles that it's all in the wrist.
The most frightening aspect isn't the food, however. Rather, it occurs when an unwitting guard thinks I am an inmate who has wandered in without permission. Without my wallet and I.D. on me, I can't prove otherwise. The surrounding prisoners cry out for me to be sent to "fight school" in Cell Block 11: the murderers' ward. Finally, I notice the head of food service and run for freedom.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Faith must be enforced by reason. When faith becomes blind it dies.-- Mahatma Gandhi
As a Catholic guy, I've spent my entire life being told what to think about God. Whether it was my dad drilling me on questions from the Catechism, or priests and nuns leading me in prayer during my 12 years of Catholic school, I learned a distinct way of looking at the world and the universe that I've never been able to shake.
I've had my rebellious phases before. I got re-baptized in a Baptist church in Texas so I could experience being dunked. And as you may have read earlier on this Web site, I spent a week as an online minister to see whether a person really could perform a legal wedding in California after merely clicking a mouse button.
Both times I went right back to the Catholic church, albeit after thorough scoldings by my priests.
But I'd never put myself through anything like the Amazing Meeting, an annual convention of science fanatics from around the globe who gathered in Las Vegas earlier this year to learn about the latest advances in science and the wildest debunkings of such spurious issues as crop circles, ghosts, aliens, magic tricks. dowsing -- and, of course, religion. The attendees consider themselves "Skeptics," the polar opposites of "Believers." Although some are outright atheists, most are merely agnostic -- reserving their final opinion on God until they either look Him in the eye or find that there's nothing there after they die.
"I love science and I want to change the world in terms of making it a more rational, sane place to live, and science is the best tool we have for that," explained Dr. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society and the world's most prominent supernatural debunker. "I get very discouraged by the beliefs people hold and the percentages of people that hold those beliefs."
Shermer was speaking in the lobby of the Stardust, one of the hotels left over from the classic Rat Pack era of Vegas. He flashed a wry grin and chuckled at the irony that we were celebrating the disproving of myths within the fakest city on earth.
Just as Shermer had surprised me in a previous interview with his wit and sense of fun, he and his Amazing Meeting cohorts -- who included entertainers Penn & Teller, comic actress/writer Julia Sweeney, and Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens -- were about to upend my opinions of atheists as uncaring hedonists and of science fans as unemotional ubernerds.
"One of the things [the Skeptics Society does] is put a happy face on science. Scientists aren't just dour, unhappy nerds, and we've got to show that by example," says Shermer, a former professional cyclist and, ironically, a former born-again Christian. "It's also fairly simple to derive values from your worldview. We've been doing it for 200 years here in America, where the Constitution says regardless of whether or not you believe in a religion, you've got to follow the rules."
For Shermer, the most important battles aren't over beliefs and morality -- noting that Skeptics don't care if others have religious beliefs, as long as they don't impose them on society through the rule of law.
The Amazing Meeting lives up to its name in many ways, thanks to its founder and organizer, the Amazing Randi -- otherwise known as James Randi, head of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).
A short, white-bearded man with a perpetual grin that makes him look like Santa's wilder brother, Randi has devoted his life to showing that science can be fun. And when you consider that this most unusual convention offers everything from fresh photos from the Saturn moon of Titan to elaborate fake séances, numerous magic shows doubling as scientific lectures, and star power in the form of comic duo Penn & Teller and other celebrities, Randi, Shermer and their supporters have more than succeeded.
One man who's a key figure in all the fun -- yet who's also particularly furious at the religious battles in society -- is Penn Jillette, who's better known as the taller, talkative member of Penn & Teller. Seeming nearly 7 feet tall and sporting long-flowing hair that makes him look like a cross between a hippie and a mad scientist, Penn claims to have been an atheist ever since he was a child.
"My parents weren't well to do, but if I was wanting something to do with science, they always made the sacrifice to support it," recalled Jillette, 49, who attended the conference and led a Q&A in which Teller actually spoke. "I had learned to juggle at 12 and saw the mentalist Amazing Kreskin doing experiments on TV when I was 13. I thought his ESP set was a science thing, so my parents got it for me."
Jillette experimented with his parents to try and make the ESP work, but after a few weeks of no results he picked up a book at his local library which explained how Kreskin was fooling people "and I was crushed." So crushed, in fact, that he suddenly hated all science and magic, and even dropped out of high school altogether. But at the age of 18, he had the most fateful meeting of his life when his friend Teller introduced him to The Amazing Randi. Randi offered a counterpoint to people like Kreskin.
"Randi convinced me that I could be good and ethical while doing magic," says Jillette. "I started performing with Teller shortly after that, and our atheism and skepticism have grown stronger as we've grown older."
In fact, the duo's work has taken them beyond frequent Letterman appearances all the way to a highly lucrative long-term Vegas run and their own reality series on Showtime. Now entering its third season, Bullshit! has taken on such issues as talking to the dead, radical environmentalism, circumcision, Mother Teresa's reputation, and feng shui.
"We're trying to get the message out that [a supernatural worldview] is the wrong way of thinking, and the smarter the demographic such as physicists, the less likely they are to actively believe in God," Jillette claims. "I'm very optimistic that people will get smarter and learn more as time goes on -- especially after the World Trade Center disasters, people came to realize that if you really believe in a god, you're flying that plane into the World Trade Centers. And if Bush didn't spend his time like most white liberals, saying Muslims were an OK religion and these terrorists were a few bad apples, we'd be much better off. Any belief that lends itself to an interpretation where terrorism is acceptable is just evil."
There is more, however, to being a Skeptic than poking holes in religion or aliens -- and the presence of Christopher Hitchens at the Amazing Meeting is a perfect example of where a Skeptic's approach to the world can be valuable even if one doesn't agree with their views on religion.
Hitchens is one of the most respected and controversial journalists on the planet, best known for his monthly exposes in Vanity Fair. He was once a poster boy for the political left, but much like comic Dennis Miller, Hitchens radically changed his political allegiances after 9-11 to actively support President Bush's so-called War on Terror.
"I can see with my own eyes that what the majority of what the press is saying is not the truth and is dangerous. It's left to me to write a second version and take another look at history," said Hitchens, the very picture of an insouciant British journalist in his rumpled suit.
"Ever since the war in Bosnia in the mid-90s. I have felt that the Left is becoming a status quo force and has no active program for anyone's future. They were opposed to engagement there, and in the last couple of years, faced with the challenge of Islamic theocratic extremism, a very large element of the Left believes that there isn't a war going on or believes that there shouldn't be. It means there's no Left even to leave, they're nonexistent."
Indeed, Hitchens makes it clear that he harbors outright contempt for what he perceives as a lack of ideals and leadership on the part of Democratic leaders like John Kerry and Bill Clinton. Even greater is his dismay at those who would compare the Iraqi jihadist insurgency with the soldiers who fought for American freedom in the Revolutionary War.
"There were a lot of believing Muslims killed in the World Trade Center. It was impossible not to kill some Muslims if you took out a big building in New York, but they didn't care about that," said Hitchens. "They weren't the 'right kind' of Muslims for the radicals."
Yet while he proudly claims that he's an "anti-theist," Hitchens' prove-it-to-me worldview carries an undercurrent of hope that parallels the shiny happy faces of the most ardent believers.
And so it goes that we spin onward through the universe on a planet that has so much diversity in its cultures yet largely one view in favor of a supreme being of some sort. And as long as each of us can keep our views from being so fervently held that we feel a need to war over our interpretation of God or force it upon everyone else, Michael Shermer, The Amazing Randi, Penn Gillette, Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the Skeptics don't really mind. After all, they can't prove God doesn't exist, either.
"There is a pretty clear sign that the tendency to believe in some sort of transcendent being is hardwired into us somehow, because almost everybody has it in all cultures," said Shermer.
"The problem isn't religion per se, but extremism. When [extremists] try to enforce it by fiat – through state or bureaucratic legislation – then it becomes dangerous. And that's where it's our duty to say something in Skepticism. It's easy to target religious fundamentalists after 9-11 but secular fundamentalists like Marxists or Communists also have been only too willing to kill in honor of their ideology. Extremism wedded to power is where it gets dangerous."
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Or, How it feels to dress like an inflatable dinosaur for three days
By Carl Kozlowski
I admit, I’ll pretty much do anything for money. And make no mistake, it was all about the money. Two hundred and fifty dollars a day. The price for five hours of humiliation. It seemed like a fair deal.
The assignment was simple: find out what it was like to be an actor trapped in a humiliating costume, like the gorilla-man who handed out flyers for Gold’s Gym, or the people who swelter inside giant Mickey Mouse outfits at Disneyland.
For me the challenge was, for four days, to play Cheesasaurus Rex - the cheese-colored cartoon dinosaur used to foist Kraft Macaroni & Cheese on America’s children - and pocket the equivalent of two weeks of my normal pay. In the entertainment business this is known as “suit work,” the option of last resort for aspiring actors and out-of-luck comics such as myself. Just step in a costume, act like a goof, and deposit the dirty little check.
“I’ve done Popeye, the Ninja Turtles and Elvis. The one good thing about suit work is that it builds up your tolerance for humiliation and shit-eating, which is really the key to success in show business anyway.” - Tim Joyce, comedian
DAY ONE, 6:30 AM By accepting my talent agency’s mission to play the purveyor of cheese-flavored powder and pasta, I agree to operate under orders straight out of a spy caper. I will arrive at a neutral location in Chicago, climb into a rental cargo van driven by a Kraft public relations intern, secretly don the dinosaur suit while riding to the morning commuter rush at Chicago’s Union Station, inflate the outfit and march out to confuse and disarm the masses. Standing in the chilly predawn air, I look forward to the challenge as the van pulls up.
6:45 AM Everything has already gone horribly wrong. The Cheesasaurus is a horrible, complex beast, rife with metal poles, battery packs and timed fans which, ostensibly, both inflate the suit and keep the actor inside from sweating to death. The outfit also comes with an instructional video for assembly that the two women from Kraft - the intern and an accompanying account rep - have, conveniently, forgotten to watch. Fearing that improper assembly of the suit could lead to a bizarre and undignified death, we turn the van around and head to the account rep’s apartment to fire up the VCR.
7:05 AM Following along as the video’s incredibly bad actors pretend that donning the dino suit is simple, I alternately laugh at my reflection in the mirror and wince from the crushing burden on my back. Finally, we force the dinosaur’s head on and manage to zipper me up. I knock two wires together, wait for the fans to switch on and warn all women and children to flee the vicinity. When fully inflated, the Cheesasaurus tops out at seven feet tall and three feet wide, with a tail the size of Toledo. My Kraft companions can’t stop laughing.
7:15 AM We sneak down the back staircase and hustle to the van as commuters whiz past on Chicago Avenue. Just one problem: how to cram a seven-foot, fully inflated plastic floatation device with a tail into the cargo van. I curl into the fetal position and soon find myself sliding across the floor each time we stop, start or turn - tumbling around like a sack of potatoes amid the suit’s ample belly area. At this point, the Kraft women are laughing so hard they’ve begun to cry. If I could only get my arms free, I would unzip the suit and flee.
8 AM I, Cheesasaurus, have been lumbering through the streets of Chicago for a full half-hour, peering out of a mesh-covered hole in my cheese-lovin’ chest. My arms have already sustained ligament damage from the constant waving, while the Kraft intern hands out flyers inviting passersby to bring their children to a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese anniversary party Saturday at nearby Navy Pier. Youngsters scream with excitement from the windows of passing school buses. Drivers honk in amusement. A carload of young men sharing a readily visible bong seem downright confused by the sight of me.
8:55 AM Back at the van for a two-hour break, the suit is unzipped to the disgusted squeals of the Kraft intern - the fan’s batteries ran out ten minutes earlier. The result is a grotesque, shriveled plastic skin with feet that feel like sandbags and the internal temperature of a blast furnace. Lesson one learned: keep an eye on the time - each battery lasts only 90 minutes. Three-and-a-half days to go.
“I wanted to make a living as an actor, and I figured if I was performing and getting paid, I was still pursuing my career goals. But every time I suited up I knew exactly how Billy Barty felt doing Sigmund the Sea Monster.” - Scott Vinci, actor and stand-up comic
DAY TWO 9:45 AM Brad Pitt wore a chicken suit.
As I arrive during an obscenely cold morning to again strap on my tools of ignorance, I remind myself that even one of Hollywood’s top dogs suffered the indignity of suit work before hitting it big in “Thelma and Louise.” It’s a comforting thought, and having managed the timing of the fans the previous day, I manage to make it through the morning. The week’s greatest danger, however, appears as I trudge back to the van for my break: we are spotted by a field-tripping group of Chicago public high school students.
I beg my Kraft partner to travel another route back to the van. She assures me I will be fine - besides, meeting and greeting is what the job is all about. Having been raised, as a good Catholic, to offer up the little pains life gives us and thinking of the suffering Jesus endured carrying His cross, I trudge toward my own modern-day Golgotha.
“Hey, it’s Barney’s retarded brother!” yells one witty lad right before he plants an elbow in my sternum.
“Let’s see if we can find the guy’s face!” hollers another, as about twenty hooligans proceed to poke and prod every apparent orifice on my shiny plastic outfit. By the time the Kraft intern realizes I’m getting the cheese kicked out of me, it’s too late to escape. To make matters worse, since the Cheesasaurus suit sports only four fingers on each hand, I can’t even flip them the bird. (The suit’s creators must’ve known that a middle finger would surely be used to provoke lawsuits.) When I try to turn and waddle away, a warden-like teacher demands a group photo. In the name of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I am compelled to stop. Somewhere out there exists photographic evidence of this brutal group assault.
“The biggest perk of being a Ninja Turtle at kids’ parties was every weekend I got punched in the nuts for free. The average three-year-old’s head was at crotch level and when they threw a punch, it was at that level, too. I finally wore a cup.” - Tim Joyce
DAY THREE, 7:10 AM Fearing more trouble, I study a Kraft memo I’ve been handed entitled “Answers to the Tough Questions.” For instance, to the query “How can you promote a product that has so much fat and so little nutrition?” the seven-foot plastic beast’s keeper is to reply: “I am not a nutrition expert, but I would be happy to put you in touch with one. I can tell you that I grew up eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, and I feel good knowing that my children will enjoy it as part of their balanced diet, too.” Most other confrontational queries were to be brushed aside with the claim that “no one else has complained yet!” I shudder.
12:15 PM My morning as Cheesasaurus was more of the same: waving, hugs, taunts, ,sneers, and countless photos with foreigners. During lunch hour, however, I’m asked to work the sidewalk in front of the Equitable Building on Michigan Avenue - the building in which I work a normal day job where my only costume is a tie. Imagine the slow-boiling rage of doing something incredibly stupid and then having your respected coworkers mock you for sport. Granted, none of them knows that the poor fool in the suit is actually good-natured Carl. But for 90 minutes, I watch through my stomach-spot eyehole as dozens of officemates walk by and hurl scorn.
“You couldn’t pay me enough to do that,” is the most common abuse.
There are others: “I bet that doesn’t even require high school.” “Wouldn’t you hate doing that?” “I wonder if he feels stupid?” The Kraft intern also notices a profuse number of spit globs landing around and on top of me, wafting from the open windows. My peers are lobbing hockers at my head.
Finally, I understand the destructive effects of prejudice first-hand: I am being judged not only by the color of my mottled orange skin, but by the grotesque size of my character. Saturday’s morning’s party - a.k.a. my final day in hell - can’t come fast enough.
“One time I had to dress in a dog outfit for a job and walk five miles to the gig along a busy road. The sidewalk was full of broken glass and the costume’s feet were paper-thin. I was boiling. My feet were shredded. But the cars that passed me by just saw this big, goofy dog with a stupid grin on its face. I was suffering - but when they honked, you had to wave. When you’re in the suit, you can’t not wave.” - Mary Jean O’Connor, actress
DAY FOUR, 10:45 AM The Navy Pier’s garish Crystal Garden is a marketing fink’s wet dream: Hundreds of aspiring child actors swarm the floor, amid an enormous birthday cake and a gigantic wooden birthday card honoring the anniversary. There are three gigantic wooden mockups of Mac’N Cheese boxes, with holes in the center for kids to stick their mugs - Polaroids of the tots will be added to a nationwide search for twelve perfect faces to adorn special anniversary boxfronts. Next to the boxes is a small stage upon which I will endure my greatest humiliation: leading children in a line dance called the Cheesasaurus Shuffle.
I gaze out at this surreal scene from my secret dressing room (actually, the freezer of a nearby restaurant.) Finally, the host calls for us to emerge through the crowd and take my rightful place on stage. As I waddle my way through the throng, the smug DJ begins playing “Stuck in The Middle With You,” the song from the infamous police-torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” At this moment, I think I would prefer being tied to a chair looking at my sliced-off ear.
Suddenly, I can’t even move. Like Gandhi, Elvis or Pope John Paul II, I am swarmed onstage, by children who want nothing more than to touch Cheesasaurus, hug Cheesasaurus, and tell Cheesasaurus how much they love him. It’s creepy. Countless tiny hands grope my dino butt and crotch. Leading the crowd through the Shuffle, hoping to God that I don’t sideswipe a kid with my dino tail, I pray for the agony to end.
After the show, as I watch children grab box after box of macaroni from the display tables on their way out, i take stock of the many lessons I learned this week. One, it’s not a good idea to sneeze, cough or flatulate while encased in a suit you cannot unzip. Two, small children will continuously hug anyone in a plastic suit. Three, Brad Pitt might not be as much of a wuss as I always thought he was.
In the months since Cheesasaurus, I’ve devoted myself to recovering the deflated sense of dignity and self-respect that comes with an inflated bank account. The photos of my time in the suit haunt me. I’ve held onto them under the principle that, as Santayana taught, if we fail to remember our past, we’re condemned to repeat it. And I want not only to protect myself from the torture of suit work but to also protect my future children and my future children’s children.