NYC Lesson #1



Guy walks into a diner on the Lower East Side. The joint is busy but not packed. As good a place as any to kill half an hour.

A waitress in a mustard dress and crisp apron shuttles up and down the gap between the loudmouths at the counter and a single row of four tops. She trades the fry cook order slips for heaping plates without a word.

Guy takes a table. Waitress flicks a menu on the polished formica as she zips by. Guy shifts uneasy in his chair. He’s new in town, grew up in the Midwest. Iowa, or maybe it was Idaho. Guy worries sometimes that strangers can tell he’s from out of town.

They can.

Whadayahave? says the waitress out of nowhere.

Just a coffee.

Minute later, the waitress clunks a mug steaming on the table. Dangling clear as day against the white ceramic, from a string running over the lip of the mug, there’s a little yellow label: “Lipton.”

Guy glances up but the waitress is gone. He considers the mug. Not much of a coffee drinker in the first place. He just wanted to warm up before looking at the next apartment. Nothing wrong with tea.

Next table over, a woman gets up to leave. Her handbag is enormous, and her perm is a shade of red that could almost be natural. She walks toward the door, but stops short by the guy’s table. Woman leans over and fixes the guy with a hard stare. She whispers in a tone both urgent and detached:

Don’t settle.

What a year: 2013 in review


After an awkwardly long hiatus from writing here, it seems fitting to return with a quick post looking back at 2013.

It’s been a busy year, with lots of opportunities to be grateful for. A little over 100 bylines totaling 34,446 words, by my count.

If you were to read them all together, it would be a wild mix. The lifestyle piece on a $600 whiskey shot, investigative reporting on sponsorship deals in public schools, and a dispatch from the zombie apocalypse.

Some stories were hard to miss—my profile of Wilco’s lead singer, and a close look at the events leading up to the tragic death of cyclist Bobby Cann.

But it doesn’t always take a social media storm to make an impact:

  • In February, I was the first to report on an irregularity in the state vehicle code, which seemed to fault cyclists in doorings from the traffic lane (think cabs, or passengers hopping out at red lights.) A few weeks later, State Rep. Laura Fine introduced a bill clarifying the law. It passed and was signed into law in August—and for cyclists injured in this type of accident, it’s a significant change.
  • In a two-part series on the Affordable Care Act, I reported on the population left uncovered in states that have refused federal funds to expand Medicaid. Part one looked at how the political debate unfolded in the Deep South, where poverty and lack of insurance run disproportionately high. In part two, I interviewed some of those affected  across the country—the working poor who made too little to qualify for federal premium subsidies, and too much for un-expanded Medicaid. The day after that ran, the New York Times published a similar (and very good) story, and the topic made the rounds on cable news. Jon Stewart has more.
  • With over 30,000 students affected, the mass closing of elementary schools—and the budget crisis that sparked it—was one of the biggest Chicago stories of the year. There was so much excellent local reporting on that topic, and I’m glad to have added to it on a few fronts: parent concerns at closing schools, the economic development impact of closures, and a city-wide fight to route surplus TIF funds to CPS.

Like I said, wild mix. It’s fun and rewarding work though. I would not be able to do it without help from my editors, trust from my sources, and time from the people who read and share. Tremendously thankful for all of their support.

In the coming year, the lens will stay wide, but the subject will narrow. More on that soon. Happy new year!

Jeff Tweedy on the secret to happiness


tweedy-620x297Wilco’s lead singer, Jeff Tweedy, has figured out a few things in life. In the most recent issue of Grid magazine, I profiled Tweedy the entrepreneur, examining how he’s built a sustainable, self-reliant business around Wilco’s music—a tricky proposition for any mid-sized act in the age of Spotify, as attested by the industry vets who discussed the article with the New Yorker.

Tweedy, a practiced interviewee, knows the power of a telling anecdote. When we first met in March, in Wilco’s loft space in northwest Chicago, he shared a story with me that didn’t fit in the article.

I asked Tweedy, whose band has a gold-certified album and two Grammys, how he defined success. Here is his reply: Continue reading

Some early validation for Michael Alter’s optimism


Tonight, the Sky go up against the Seattle Storm on ESPN2. It’s one of three nationally broadcast games for Chicago’s WNBA team this season, under a new league-wide TV deal that excited Sky owner Michael Alter when we discussed it in April.

Alter’s pre-season optimism for the team and the business centered on rookie Elena Delle Donne. With a third of the regular season in the can, she’s made good. The second over-all draft pick is leading her draft class in scoring (19.5 points per game) and percentage from the free-throw line (an outrageous .947 — Kevin Durant led the NBA’s last regular season with .905 from the charity line). Continue reading