Can you top being the Pigeon Guy?
If you asked me to start naming current Chicago aldermen off the top of my head, I wouldn’t get far — there’s Ed Burke, of course, radiating power and wealth, the iron fist in the starched shirt. There’s Joe Moore, Burke’s polar opposite, all affable North Side blue collar. I picture him wandering his ward in coveralls, toting a toolbox, changing light bulbs and scraping gum off the sidewalk.
There’s also Bob Fioretti — noteworthy for his distinctive coiffure but familiar to me because, a few years back, I had the charmed notion to try to remedy my general City Council ignorance by going out to lunch with every alderman, one per week for 50 weeks. My first lunch mate, Manny Flores, quit the council almost immediately after we met. Then Bob took me on a protracted tour of his ward. He was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his ward on a building-by-building, almost microscopic level, and I decided the project was daft, more performance art than journalism, and abandoned it.
Anyone else? A few others bobbing recently in the headlines — Sandi Jackson, naturally. And ... It could almost be a parlor game — Who’s Still There? I know Dorothy Tillman is gone. How about Dick Mell? (checking ... yes, lo these 37 years, the longest serving alderman, destined to be known as the Man who Gave the World Rod Blagojevich. Frankly I would prefer complete obscurity).
Being a journalist, I suppose I should be embarrassed. But the City Council always struck me as a gang of supernumeraries, dividing up their time evenly among four activities: rubber-stamping the mayor, diddling their constituents, making empty symbolic gestures and cutting deals for themselves. I’ve attended maybe three or four city council meetings over the past quarter century — the last one, I believe, was to hear testimony related to the treatment of elephants within city limits — and can’t say I consider myself the poorer for it.
Thus I learned of the existence of Ald. James Cappleman (46th) through his introduction Wednesday of an ordinance against feeding pigeons in Chicago. This must be done, he said, because a street character known as the “Pigeon Lady” attacked him while he tried to sweep up the crumbs she was setting out by the pound, pushing the alderman, then pelting him with bread crumbs.
To be honest, that is not an image I would choose to publicize: myself, broom in hand, cowering under a hail of stale bread tossed by a lunatic. I’m not saying pigeons aren’t vile or aren’t a concern. But there are already laws aplenty to handle any conceivable pigeon-feeding-situation, from rules regarding public hazards to ordinances designed to combat rats. The individuals this new law is aimed at have already been arrested multiple times. So what’s the point?
Those taking a stand against pigeons end up suffering themselves — I’m thinking of a columnist at another paper who once wrote an alarming confession about his attempts to kick pigeons to death, a mean-spirited and oblivious piece whose shame never left him.
Similarly, Cappleman’s anti-pigeon campaign struck me as a bold leap into Burt Natarus territory — Burt, if you are late to the game, was an alderman for 36 years, known for his quixotic attempts to quiet, clean and otherwise sanitize a dynamic city, all in minor, almost nearly meaningless ways, the epitome being his desire to put diapers on carriage horses around the Water Tower.
Natarus left the council in 2007, leaving a void — the nutty, harmless alderman slot. Could that be Cappleman, new to this game, having won Helen Shiller’s old seat last year? Before I label him “The New Burt Natarus,” fairness demanded I give him his say. When I phoned mid-morning Thursday, his office had already curled into a protective crouch.
“He’s not taking calls on the pigeon issues,” said a functionary in his office, and I patiently explained that I am not interested in the alderman’s feelings about pigeons and stale bread, or his inability, apparently, to handle one or two boisterous street characters in his ward without drafting even more legislation. He’s planted his flag on Planet Strange. What I am interested in is what, if anything, he cares about besides pigeons, not that anybody is going to remember that.
I left my number.
I saw Natarus, by the way, not long ago. He’s still Burt. I invited him to my book launch at Petterino’s, thinking he’d appreciate a place to go out of the cold. He thanked me by heckling my remarks, which did lend a certain carnival of Chicago politics cast to the party (“You’re a little meshugga,” Natarus yelled, or words to that effect — “meshugga” being Yiddish for “crazy.”)
The alderman is right of course — it’s a crazy city in a crazy world, and if you’re only a little crazy, you’re ahead of the game. I hope Ald. Cappleman does something someday to efface his bold stand against pigeons. But if history is any judge, he won’t.