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Sandburg awards dinner gathers literary celebs in glittery cavalcade

Left right: Neil Steinberg Nami Mun DDeLillo Walter IsaacsMayor Rahm Emanuel attend Chicago Public Library FoundatiChicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg

Left to right: Neil Steinberg, Nami Mun, Don DeLillo, Walter Isaacson and Mayor Rahm Emanuel attend the Chicago Public Library Foundation and Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Literary Award Dinner Wednesday, October 17, 2012. | Dan Rest photo

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Updated: November 20, 2012 10:52AM

Mine is not one of those columns studded with bold-faced celebrity names, mainly because the closest I usually come to mingling with celebrities is having an office right in between the offices of Richard Roeper and Bill Zwecker. But whatever malign force in the universe generally keeps me from star-choked events lifted Wednesday night, and I found myself at the annual Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, the advent of which I of course dreaded, predicting “a series of minor humiliations as punishment for the hubris of reaching toward a tiny honor.” That’s how these dinners always are; I end up tucked behind a plant in the corner of a vast ballroom, squinting into spotlights at the distant speck of a well-known person accepting a cube of lucite, feeling like a supernumerary shuffling through the role of Townsman in a Cheap Suit in an elaborate pageant celebrating someone else.

The idea that the Sandburg dinner was going to be different first dawned on me about five minutes into the opening reception, when I spied honoree Don DeLillo sitting at a small table. I plopped down in the chair next to him and introduced myself. He explained, in a whisper, that his voice is fading, no doubt the standard East Coast literary set line that major authors use to politely blow off intrusive small potato bores — not that it worked.

“That’s OK,” I said brightly, “I’ll do the talking for both of us,” and proceeded to praise Underworld and White Noise and lay out my own career in an agonizing detail that I hope did not destroy the evening for him.

After that it was off to the races. I cornered mystery writer Sara Paretsky, looking soigne, and talked to her about an email exchange she didn’t recall. Then I bumped into my old pal, New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, author of the influential Heat Wave and, more recently, Going Solo. I got a hearty hello from my pal Bill Kurtis and ran into director Robert Falls, whom I seem to run into everywhere. His wife, Kat Falls, whose sci-fi novel Dark Life is in development at Disney, was being honored, and we took turns happily sticking pins in a certain Wall Street Journal drama critic we mutually dislike and, speaking of which, I luckily detected Walter Jacobson in time to avert my eyes and rush off in the opposite direction.

They arranged us in alphabetical order, so we could march across a stage and be recognized as Official Literary Sorts, putting me next to Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, who gave an update on his doings in China, and unspooled a tale of rescuing Carl Sandburg after he got trapped in the elevator of the governor’s mansion. Architect Stanley Tigerman borrowed a pen and impressed me by then returning it.

Just sitting got old, fast, and I wandered over to say hello to Second City founder Bernie Sahlins, reminding him that I had not seen him since the wake Del Close threw for himself the evening before he committed suicide to cheat the Grim Reaper, who was about to kill him with cancer, a wild affair that included Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and a satanic priest who performed a dark ritual.

Speaking of darkness, Rick Kogan was there, thank God, and we talked about his success as a host on WBEZ. He introduced me to poet and short story writer Stuart Dybek, and to Kevin Coval, founder of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival and we discussed the joys of the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, and lauded our mutual friend, slam poet Patricia Smith.

The marching across stage part took a while, and I tried to make small talk with an unloquacious Scott Turow — selling 25 million books must render you taciturn — who accepted plaudits for Presumed Innocent and his other mysteries. He did laugh, when novelist Peter Orner crossed the stage, and I said I had read his debut novel, Love and Shame and Love, and perhaps he could have more accurately titled it Shame and Love and Shame.

Space dwindles, and I’m leaving folks out — Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, folk singer Bonnie Koloc, NPR Saturday Edition’s Scott Simon, whom I badgered unmercifully, demanding that he feature my new book on his program. Walter Isaacson, who won the Sandburg award for non-fiction, shared tales of Steve Jobs, Nami Mun , given the 21st Century Award, who movingly told the 700 people gathered to benefit the Chicago Public Library about being homeless, and how homeless shelters and Planned Parenthood helped her get off the streets. Zenobia Johnson Black came up and said she is a big fan of the Sun-Times, and introduced me to her husband, activist, historian and icon Timuel Black, and I think I shocked the poor man by practically grabbing him by his lapels and demanding that he have lunch with me later, and he agreed, if only to escape my clutches.

My wife, Edie, laughed at me all the way home in the car. “I got this dinner I gotta go to,” she whined, in an amazing imitation of a glum nasal depressive bemoaning his latest woe. “You wanna keep me company?”

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