Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cheesy Like Me

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.

St. Nicked

What happens when Santa goes on a holly-jolly spree of smoking, dancing and picking up chicks?
By Carl Kozlowski

DECEMBER 28, 1998: Santa Claus. The name conjures up indelible images of a man in a red suit with a white beard who barrels down our chimneys and blasts through our skies on Christmas Eve. He is also a man who has spawned more imitators than Elvis, an icon so big in the world's collective consciousness that he has wrested Christmas straight from the stigmatized hands of Christ Himself.

But Santa is also a man of contradictions, perhaps even of menacing danger. Like Big Brother, he knows when you are sleeping and he knows when you're awake. Like Ice-T, he enjoys the thought of home invasions. He loves all people yet has no qualms about working elves and reindeer harder than a Chinese dictator.

With a home on the unreachable North Pole and mysterious yet unlimited financing, it looks as if ol' Saint Nick could even be in cahoots with the CIA. And yet we still love him, even though the discovery that he doesn't really exist represents our first loss of innocence. It's not Watergate that jades us, folks, nor our first breakup with a lover. It's discovering that Santa is really Dad.

Dressed in the garb of the legend, I spent forty-eight hours on the mean streets of Chicago to see if the magic of Santa still exists for the young and old alike.

Saturday, 9:30am
The alarm clock is ringing way too early for a man who is hungover. For a man who downed six beers and four tequila shots the night before. For a man who passed out on his couch. For a man who is going to spend the unseasonably 70-degree day in a poly-blend Santa suit.

After an ill-fated attempt at breakfast, I'm on my way to pick up the first of my assistant elves, Ben. Having been punched and spat upon during a previous undercover assignment as an inflatable dinosaur, I have steadfastly refused to hit the streets without security, or at least a witness the authorities can call upon in court.

Ben is wearing green in the spirit of Christmas, but his clothes are hipster military fatigues utterly inappropriate for an elf. He also hasn't shaved in six days; this Fidel Castro look is sure to frighten children. He tries to excuse his attire by saying he's Jewish and can't be expected to get a Christmas gag right.

We hit the road in full costume, the rogue elfin one armed with an extra belt of jingle bells and a plastic hook-hand that just seems like it might come in, uh, handy. Immediately, people yell out "Santa!", and children wave from honking cars. First mission: cigarettes. In line at the convenience store, we encounter a little girl and her mom. I say the smokes are for my elf, and that I'm very disappointed with his disgusting habit.

Dangling my day's first cigarette out the car window while cruising along an impossibly crowded Michigan Avenue, I find holiday shoppers aren't too self-absorbed to shoot a smokin' Santa dirty looks - or maybe that's the indication of a hernia induced by lugging around Crate & Barrel bags. A cabbie who looks like he's been out of prison for about two days is yelling "Santa shouldn't smoke!" at me repeatedly. None of this seems to faze the two hotties in the next car over. They're smiling, giggling and waving. Surely a Santa suit can't be considered sexy?

We're joined by my other elf, a six-foot-tall, 300-pound guy named Rod who is apparently trying to steal my thunder by donning a Santa hat - as well as inexplicable ropes of plastic gold chains. The jolly old Mr. T thing is confusing, but I have a feeling the kids won't even notice: he's also brought along a plastic bag of Beanie Babies to hand out. I tell him to hop in, 'cause we're heading to Hooters.

Before you condemn us for patronizing such an unwholesome institution, realize that lunch at Hooters was a bold compromise with the editors who wanted photos of strippers giving Santa lap dances at the Admiral. We also restrained ourselves from handing cigarettes to children in lieu of the Beanie Babies and avoided picketing stores with our "Santa's On Strike! Get Your Own Crap This Year!" sign. So a couple hours spent leering and cracking innuendos is fairly innocent in the big scheme of things. Outside we're accosted by a limo driver who wants a photo. Inside, we're met with the fame Santa deserves: heads swivel, women cry out "Look! It's Santa!" There's even a smattering of applause.

Our waitress is a Hooters'-typical blonde who goes by the oxymoron Speck, and who looks like she's alternately amused and embarrassed by having to serve us. In the course of an hour, we down Hooter Burgers, baskets of fries and a pitcher of Leinenkugels while people stare. There's even families here, and the parents scowl at me for setting a bad example. I scowl right back. They're the ones who brought their rugrats to this culinary jigglefest in the first place. As Rod holds mistletoe over my head, I get a kiss on the cheek from Speck while a table full of Navy guys on shore leave goes nuts. I exit Hooters to a thunderous round of applause. A couple of tables even give me a standing ovation. That's more like it.

We've just hiked all the way to Marshall Field's, creating a traffic jam of gawking fans. I'm hoisting the "Santa's On Strike!" sign, along with ones saying "Will Deliver Toys For Food" and "Reindeer Flew Away. Need Change For Plane Fare." But it's my fourth sign that proves to be the most useful, as I round the corner and come face-to-face with a street preacher who just happens to be singing "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." When the tune changes to "Jesus Christ Is Coming Again", I leap in front of him and execute a shuck-and-jive dance that would make the Blues Brothers proud, waving my "Please Donate Change To Make Us Stop Singing" sign like a strip-tease boa. I'd like to say the crowd went wild, but they really just looked confused. The preacher never caught on. Fearing that Marshall Field's security will call police, we headed over to the Daley Center plaza to march our signs under the official city Christmas tree. We realize that this is a bad move when Ben notices the mile-long line of kids waiting to see the city-approved Santa - and that some parents are starting to point their children toward me. This should have triggered an identity crisis of metaphysical proportions in the children, but without even a hint of doubletake, dozens of munchkins are toddling my way. It's up to Rod to fend them off with the promise of Beanie Babies, but it is only now that he informs me the bag holds just two of the fuzzy holy grail. We toss 'em at the approaching three-foot-tall army and run like hell.

Avid gambler Rod lives up to his "Imabad Elf" moniker by luring me into the Off Track Betting outlet on State Street. As I cram my dollar into the admission-fee box, the guard begs me not to go inside. "Santa shouldn't gamble," he pleads. I choose not to bring up his own naughty-and-nice status and head upstairs, where everyone yells out their own witty variation of "Santa, bring me some luck in the fifth race!" Can't explain why it is, but the first lump of guilt weighs heavy in my bowl full of jelly. Maybe there truly are some places Santa doesn't belong. High-tailing it back outdoors, I literally and figuratively feel the need for a shower. Ben the elf can't take any more embarrassment, so Rod and I have hop on a Michigan Avenue bus to Water Tower Place by ourselves. The driver looks utterly amazed as I pop my $1.50 into the money slot, but he still doesn't spare Santa the indignity of paying. I make a mental note to drop him a lump of coal this year.

Rod and I try to act as cool as possible while fellow riders stare, and a couple of kids ask where my sleigh is. Ignoring them, I stick my red-clad arm out the window and high-five people every time the bus stops. Tourists are chasing us with their video-cameras, and flashbulbs are popping faster than a Princess Diana car chase. We reach our destination, and as the doors swing open I step into a crowd of screaming children. So this is how the Beatles felt getting off the plane in America for the first time. I shake my belly and say, "Yo ho ho! Ride the CTA!" before entering the mall.

Rod and I draw a crowd kicking back in a pair of vibrating massage chairs at The Sharper Image. I would insert a couple of jiggling-like-jelly jokes here, but in my hungover state my belly feels more like an acidic volcano ready to erupt all over the front window.

Five minutes later, we're stuck on an elevator with a dozen senior citizens. Before you can say "Metamucil," I'm leading them in a boisterous, off-key rendition of "Jingle Bells." Triumphantly rejoicing, we emerge to a round of dropped jaws, and the oldsters continue to follow me like I'm the Pied Piper until a security guard grabs my arm.

"Excuse me, sir. Are you the Food Life Santa?"

"Why no!"

"Are you the Santa for any other store?"

"No, I'm the real, uncommercial Santa!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but you're gonna have to leave. We can't be singing songs and jingling bells around here."

He leads me to the elevator, waits until the doors close on us and has another guard greet us at ground level. I feel utterly dejected until a group of teenage girls swarms me like I'm one of the Backstreet Boys and beg me to take a picture with them. As soon as the flash goes off, I'm pushed outside by the security guard. Grinch.

At this point a little hair of the dog seems in order, and so we stop into a dive liquor store on State Street to gauge the clerks' reactions. Even after making a full pass of the store and contemplating whether to purchase a bottle of Brass Monkey or Night Train, we don't catch so much as a glance from the employees. They've clearly seen it all.

After heading home for a brief steam-cleaning in my shower and a couple hours of sanity, I'm on my way to a 600-person, Catholic parish Christmas party atop the Harold Washington Library. Rod has been replaced by Mike, tonight's all-purpose chauffeur/bodyguard. While I beg him to spring for a garage, the cheapskate insists we're perfectly safe parking at 8th and Wabash. On the painful hike to the party, we encounter two screaming winos in battle.

"I swear on my mother's grave I'm gonna kill you!" one screeches, waving his bottle in the air like a deadly rapier. As his rival squeals, "I'm not gonna die for some chick!" I slip on the pirate-hook hand to make myself look tougher and drag the elf across the street.

A group of guys huddled in a parked car call out, "Hey Santa! Want some crack?!" Screw this; Santa's taking a cab.

Sweeping into the swank marble ballroom on the ninth floor, we are greeted like a pair of emerging debutantes. Before we got here, more than 600 people decked-out in their holiday finest had been engaged in proper, stifling conversations about business deals and relationships; maybe five of them were dancing to the strains of the cover band onstage. The party livens up when I'm grabbed by some outta-control mama ready to shake it. Merry Christmas, lady, your wish is granted. Suddenly I'm swarmed by hundreds of strangers in search of a kitschy photo op. Over the next two hours and nineteen minutes, I dance with twenty-three women - easily besting my lifetime record. One chick grabs me from behind, runs her hands over my stomach and says, "I'm Jewish, but I've always loved Santa. If my boyfriend wasn't here, I'd ask you to convert me."

Ho ho ho.
Amidst the hub bub, one girl named Maria has particularly caught my eye. We've danced a few times tonight, but now, with the party over, we're exchanging numbers as her undoubtedly skeptical friends stand to the side, keeping an eye on things. The moment would be really cool and romantic if I wasn't wearing such a stupid suit; then again, it never would've happened if it wasn't for the stupid suit. She asks me to take her on my second day's adventures, and I can't believe my good luck.

Sunday, 10:05am
I ring up my newest elf, Maria.


"Hope you're not being naughty this morning!" I croon. Heh heh heh.

"Oh, you must be that Santa guy. I'll get Maria."


Plans are made to meet at noon, but first I've got to pick up Rod, my elfin third wheel. Soon enough, the three of us are on our a mission to find out "If A Guy In A Santa Suit Make It Through O'Hare Airport Security?" Approaching the checkpoint at Terminal 2, I concoct the backup story: we're here to meet my little nieces from an incoming United Airlines flight. In reality, my goal is to hug total strangers as they unboard. Surprisingly, we're not stopped on sight, and are allowed to pass through the metal detector without question. Nonetheless, my belt buckle makes the buzzers go off like an air raid siren. I offer to remove it, but the guards apparently fear that my trousers will drop and instead order me to step aside for a security-wand check. Arms outstretched, legs apart, they scan my entire body and ascertain that I am carrying no terrorist weapons. I'm still afraid that they'll invoke their right to arrest us for making a joke of the process. Meanwhile, Maria is also undergoing an extensive search, repeatedly ordered through the detector. Finally, they find the jingle-bell belt under her sweater, while Rod swoops around with my camera, its flash scrambling the X-ray machine's screens. We're ordered to move on.

As we trek authoritatively through the terminal hallways, passengers seem to think that we're official airport employees spreading holiday cheer - a notion no doubt helped along by the personal escort we get from the woman driving a golf cart for the feeble. Hopping aboard, we whiz through the crowded corridors, singing carols and high-fiving people at fifteen miles per hour. One guy gets slapped so hard he drops his coffee. Back on foot, we try to hug a few people, and surprisingly, they comply. Tots cry out for us, and Rod's ready with a fresh supply of Beanie Babies. As he awards one to an 8-year-old boy who looks like he stepped out of a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV-movie, the tyke smiles and says, "I believe in you." My throat actually catches for a moment. Suddenly, I don't know if I'm gagging on the sickly-sweet sentimentality, or choking back real tears.

Gun World, here we come.

I've already contacted the Bensenville-based firing range as an average citizen via phone and learned what it takes to get my hands on a gun. We have to fill out paperwork for a background check, and photos will be involved. They're just not expecting us to show up in such festive holiday attire.

"You can fill out the paperwork, but really, please don't," the clerk pleads. The state of Illinois would probably not look too kindly on a shop sending them gag photos to process. We settle for the right to pose with an assortment of air rifles and pellet guns, and wind up looking like Bonnie and Clyde on Christmas vacation. I finish by fulfilling a secret dream I've harbored ever since I watched "T.J. Hooker" for the first time: squatting cop-style and pointing a gun directly at a camera saying, "Freeze, punk!" The clerk laughs ruefully and asks us to head home. Looking around at the ample supplies of firearms on-hand, we realize the importance of staying on his good side. It's time to head back to the North Pole.

Strange Days

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.

Riding high
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."

Porcelain gods
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."

Minister in a Mouse Click

By Carl Kozlowski

Last Friday night seemed like the perfect time for my first wedding. The sun was coming down in a beautifully clear sky over the crashing waves of a Malibu coastline, and I looked out past the smiling bride to see the faces of 60 guests waiting eagerly for the vows.

Only this was one of the strangest weddings I'd ever been involved with. For one thing, it wasn't my wedding exactly. Rather, I was the minister in charge, and I was barely even a minister. I had applied online for the legal title from the Universal Life Church only a week before, then placed an ad on the Web site Craigslist offering to "Perform a Wedding - Fast and Free!"

For months, I had been inundated with spam from sites offering to ordain anyone, anytime, for free or dirt-cheap prices. And after hearing that even Courtney Love had been accepted as a ULC minister and had married 27 couples in a Nevada radio-station promotion, I knew I had found the perfect church with which to become a minister in a mouse click.

A guy named Seth had responded to my Craigslist ad, saying his Russian fiancée Oxsana had to get married within a week or else her three-month "fiancée visa" would expire and she would be sent back to her homeland. It sounded a little strange, but I needed to wed someone within a week or I'd miss my deadline too -- so there I was, standing in a ridiculous gold robe in front of 60 strangers who could easily star in a real-life version of The Royal Tenenbaums.
Questions were flying through my mind: Was this really legal? (Yes.) If it was, why? What did real ministers and priests think about the ability of anyone to sign up online and wed people at will? And if an untrained buffoon like me could be in charge, what did this have to say about the state of marriage today?

I've had people pressuring me to be a priest all my life. I grew up in a Polish-Catholic household, and from the time I was six I was an altar boy. But I never felt compelled to become a man of the cloth -- at least not as a full-time career.
As I Googled the ULC and read through their Web sites, it seemed like there were no catches to becoming a holy man. I had to put in a few pieces of personal information -- no Social Security number, only name, e-mail address, and home address -- and click an "Ordain Me" icon. Within moments I received a fairly impressive black-and-white copy of my ministerial certificate, calling me "The Reverend Carl Casimir Kozlowski."

Now I was one of the ULC's 20 million worldwide ministers, a total that makes the church the McDonalds of ministry. They've been a source of snickering and intrigue for generations now, as friends dare each other to sign up, or couples that can't afford a fancy wedding or don't want the myriad planning hassles ask friends or family to serve on the happiest day of their lives.

"We've been a church since 1959, but there's really only been widespread Internet signups since late 1995," explains Andre Hensley, a ULC board member whose father was one of the original founders of the Modesto, CA-based church. "At first, word of the ordinations was spread by word of mouth and then by articles and television news reports, but every decade it seems there's been a different movement that's carried the growth along."

According to Hensley, ULC ordinations were a major haven for men seeking draft deferments during Vietnam in the 60s; in the 70s they became a fad as people turned against organized religion during the disillusionment of that decade. During the Me Decade of the 80s, millions signed up in hopes of dodging taxes (a ploy that often didn't work), and in the 90s the frenzy settled into the more romantic mode that holds today: peoples' desire to have friends and family officiate at weddings.

The ULC is founded on just one rule, the Golden Rule: "Do that which is right" (meaning do whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else and it's legal). So, the church doesn't care if its services are conducted in the style of Catholic, Buddhist, Baptist or Jewish formats -- everyone can join the party.

Of course, this level of open-mindedness leaves them open to criticism, not to mention pranks. Even one of the three websites listing the ordination guidelines and church rules notes such odd specifics as: "Please only ordain others with their permission. (This includes public figures as well as cartoon and other fictional characters)" and "Ministers can perform any ritual they wish to perform, except circumcision."

"We get people all the time who try to request ordinations for sitting presidents, but that's what happens when you have such an open process," says Hensley. "Then of course there's those who make jokes, like signing up as Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. That's why we screen all the requests because this is to be taken seriously. I'm not sure about the reasons for discussing circumcision, but [a member named] Brother Daniel stated there was someone who tried to perform a circumcision in Florida and so he decided to forewarn people by putting it out there on the Web."

For a church that wants to be taken seriously, their openness to any allegedly "normal" person being able to sign up also poses a problem.

"If I were to deny Courtney Love, that would be going against the teachings of the church, and that would be going against God's teaching to turn people away," explains Hensley. "We have to take it by faith that she'll do the right thing. What it comes down to is that my father thought it shouldn't be hard for someone who's been in church all their lives to preach by having to go to a seminary for years."

As radical as that idea may sound, it really isn't that far off the mark from the concepts that drove Luther to create the Protestant Reformation, according to Rev. Paul Sawyer of Throop Unitarian Universalist Church.

"Luther believed in the priesthood of all believers, a radical idea generally still practiced by Quakers, who don't believe in professional ministers for the most part and believe that everybody is equal," explains Sawyer. "Even our Unitarian Universalist tradition believed they could choose ministers and make them leaders. and a lot of early leaders in any Protestant church didn't even go to college. Just because you've got a degree or title doesn't make you good."

Not all clergy agree. Father John Collins is an Irish expatriate and associate pastor of St. Phillip's Catholic Church in Pasadena. Collins said he had never heard of online ordination prior to this interview, but thought that the concept was "somewhat silly" and "a huge danger because of the position of power."

"We look at everything that has gone on in the Catholic Church in the past couple years and those are people who have gone through a 7- or 8-year formation program designed to weed them out," says Collins, ".so the idea that anyone can do weddings and funerals and be with people when they're at their most vulnerable and take advantage of that is appalling."

David Manock, of First Hollywood Presbyterian Church, followed the traditional route of studying: 4 years in a seminary for his Masters of Divinity and another 7 years for his PhD, so he felt that online ordination "undermines and demeans the value and meaning of ordination. Ronald Kelly, the director of church relations for the Worldwide Church of God, believes that the potential for financial abuses is vast, as ordained ministers can claim income tax deductions on church donations annually, are allowed a tax-free parsonage allowance, and have part of their salaries rendered tax-free.

"If you have a certificate hanging on your wall or card in your wallet, then someone might think you're a qualified counselor and you're not," says Kelly. "Someone who valued an education by being a graduate of a certified institution wouldn't stoop to this kind of credential."

But for the sake of sheer curiosity, I would.

Because of that, I rode in my robe on two Metra trains and a Rapid Red bus all the way to Sherman Oaks to meet Seth's sister Vicki on a sweltering Friday afternoon -- and I barely drew a stare from the other freaks on public transit. At her house, I was the center of attention while being a complete stranger: everyone wanted to know what kind of preacher I was, as the groom had apparently forgotten to tell them he found me online for free.

I soon found I fit in, for as odd as I felt, they were odder. There was Seth's octogenarian father, a self-proclaimed "heathen" who had driven from Minnesota with his fourth wife, a Mormon, and their shaggy-haired twin sons who were to play a duet of the wedding march on their violins. The twins were 17, which made them just 4 years younger than their new sister-in-law Oxsana, who was about to marry Seth, 49, but still acting like he was 18.

In other words, they were one big happy American family -- 21st Century style. Elsewhere in the extremely crowded house were Oxsana's utterly bewildered parents, who were in from Russia for the big event, and Seth's mom, who was his dad's wife Number 1. (Numbers 2 and 3 "have scattered to the winds!" Seth's dad exclaimed.)

After an extremely long and winding drive out past Malibu, I met the rest of the friends -- an assortment of people from Seth's current career as a real-estate wizard and his past career as a rock singer on the L.A. club scene. The only people I had yet to meet, oddly enough, were Seth and his bride.

Seth was late to his own wedding. So was his bride. And the band. Oh, and the U-Haul truck that held all the tables and chairs for people to sit in and have a meal. Thank God the booze was there, and everyone seemed to be availing themselves of that -- even me -- until Vicki's husband noticed I was starting to sway and decided it might be best to cut me off unless they wanted to have the wedding challenged over the minister's sobriety.

Finally, the couple arrived. I had envisioned Seth as a look-alike for Larry of the Three Stooges, but he looked like the lead singer of Def Leppard, minus the mullet. Oxsana, meanwhile, was a dead ringer for Valerie Golina in Rainman.

Their arrival set off a whirlwind of preparatory activity -- preparations that should have been done long before. The guests set up their own tables, folded their own place settings, and Seth scrambled to go over which songs he wanted to sing with the band. I remembered that we hadn't even discussed one rather significant detail yet: the vows.

When I asked Seth to take a look at the vow selections, however, he said, "Oh yeah, those things" - and proceeded to dash through the choices picking "Number one, number three, and number seven" from the lists with the same care and enthusiasm he might reserve for ordering off a Chinese takeout menu.

"Just what the hell was going on here?!" I wondered, but before I could really question going through with the ceremony, it was announced that the caterers were ready to dish out the barbecue. Heaven and its attendant moral quandaries could wait. Besides, we were about to be treated to a couple of classic rock covers by Seth and the band.

"Look at Oxsana's father. He does not look amused," said one guest, an elderly Frenchwoman who claimed that she too had been ordained by the ULC. "So how many weddings have you done?" she sweetly asked me.

"This is my first," I replied.

"Fuck!" she exclaimed.

With the sun in danger of slipping away for the night, someone finally convinced Seth to stop singing and get ready. And at last, we were ready to begin, as the band cluelessly played what must have been the only vaguely religious song they knew: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." I heard at least one guest mutter, "Dude, isn't that song about death?!"

Indeed it was, but with America's divorce rate standing at 50 percent, perhaps they were just offering a candid and timely reminder that this was a grave decision the couple were making. Soon enough, the Mormon twins kicked in with their off-key yet heartfelt rendition of "Pachelbel's Canon" and Seth walked up to me in a white tux. I told him he looked good, and he shot me a weird stare like he wondered if I were gay. I decided not to offer any more comments.

Then, as one of Seth's sisters ripped open a plastic bag filled with rose petals and started madly tossing them all over the beach, Oxsana made her entrance in a stunning red wedding dress and white veil. She stood before me with Seth, and the two suddenly looked like any couple should: happy, and thankfully like they actually knew each other. I breathed a sigh of relief that this didn't appear to be a big sham after all and launched into the prayers sans microphone, yelling to be heard above the crashing waves and noticing that Seth's dad was hunched forward and squinting like crazy in an attempt to hear a word I was saying.

It was an odd feeling, taking people through that moment, realizing that this might be the most important moment of their lives while at the same time thinking "nah, something's off here." I was suddenly no better than Courtney Love. (Well, OK, I wasn't committing felonies, but this was certainly in the ballpark of unstable behavior.) Sporting the robe now conferred to me a sense of solemn power.

They put on their rings, Oxsana sort of stammered through her vows after Seth sailed through his, and then they kissed as I pronounced them man and wife. Everyone around them clapped and seemed to be into the moment, and what I felt -- more than any earthly or spiritual power -- was that I just helped make a bunch of people really happy.

And I realized that the ULC's idea of making that ability free was a valuable one, because just like a Mastercard moment, making people this happy was priceless. As the couple made their rounds to friends and family, the rest of the crowd started patting me on the back and saying things like, "That was your first one? Great job!" More than anything, I wanted to just sit down and have a drink under the stars.

Funny how Oxsana read my mind - sort of. I was perfectly willing to sit alone and let her perhaps enjoy introducing herself to the guests as the new Mrs., but instead she came hurtling through the darkness and across the sand directly towards me.

"More tequila!" she exclaimed. I hadn't had any that night, but that didn't stop her from grabbing my hand and offering to get me started.

"More tequila!" she laughed again as we ran across the beach towards the bartenders. I was looking around frantically now, wondering where Seth was, and if he was going to kill me if he saw me holding hands with his wife. But he was back singing with the band, and Oxsana suddenly slowed down.

"I'm married now, Carl," she said, making a face that looked like she had just bit into a grapefruit when she was expecting an orange. "Married!"

My heart sank. Had I just ruined her life in some way?

"Are you happy about it?" I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders as if she'd been asked whether she'd rather buy Nikes or Reeboks. "Sure," she replied, then off we went again to the bartenders, where she supervised the pouring of an extremely large glass and my downing of it in one extremely painful swig. As I gasped for air and sanity, she laughed again and ordered, "More tequila!" The bartender asked "Are you sure?" and this time I waved my hands furiously, "NO!"

Then she leaned over and kissed my forehead.

"You really should get back to Seth, ya know," I said, pointing him out across the crowd as he sang "Mustang Sally" with the band. Oxsana looked over and seemed to get a little serious for a moment before bending over, hiking up a leg of her dress and slipping off her garter.

Then she looked at me again.

"Are you married, Reverend?"

"No," I gulped.

"I don't believe you," she replied.

I flashed her my hands -- devoid of rings, marriage or otherwise. Then she handed me her garter.

"You're a good man, Carl. I hope you find a good woman. That's what this is for." She leaned in towards me again, and. gave me a hug. I never thought I'd say I'd rather not have a hug from an exotic foreign beauty, but this moment was one of them.
She then let me go, turned, and faded into the darkness across the beach. I looked up at the skies and saw the stars brighter than they'd seemed in ages, and I made a wish that she was right.