Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Groundhog Day"

One of the reasons I stopped reading stories on stage a long time ago (and updating this blog) was because I wanted to focus on making Chicagoist the best site I could. Now that there's plenty of help in that regard I've been encouraged by a few people to step in front of a mic again. 

I read this Sunday night at the wonderful That's All She Wrote series at The Savoy. JH Palmer and Angela Benander are stand up ladies and you should reach out to them, if you're interested in reading live. It's a tale of how I got over while trying to tread water.

From an early age I always wanted to work in journalism. I wrote for my high school newspaper and when I was in the Navy I contributed articles to publications on the ships where I sailed during my six years of service. But I didn’t seriously begin to pursue a career in the field until my mid-30s and when I did, I dove in with gusto and a single-mindedness that bordered on monomania at times that eventually led me to my current job editing Chicagoist.

Like many professional writers I began as a freelancer and one thing I discovered immediately was the compensation is not always equal to the work. I sometimes had to take assignments to pay the bills and much of my working day was spent waiting for a client to reject a proposal while coming up with the next pitch to be spiked.

Tired of assuring my landlord I was waiting for a check so he could receive his rent, I took a job at an Evanston law firm in late 2007 processing property tax appeals to the Cook County Board of Review. The office was housed in the attorney’s former home. He lived in a condo next door and the home was a classic Victorian on Chicago Avenue with a gutted interior to make room for cubicles. In the summer it sweltered and the electrical system was taxed by a combination of computer servers and window air conditioning units with piping attached to provide some measure of comfort. In the winter the drafts could blow so loudly it would have been more productive working outside. When one person developed a cold it bounced around the office throughout the flu season, morphing into more insidious strains. Because the home was designed for a family the septic system wasn’t built to accommodate the three dozen employees who taxed the toilets every day and we always had to be on the lookout for raw sewage floods in the basement level records room.It was an OSHA nightmare.

It wasn’t my dream gig by any stretch of the imagination but it didn’t take a lot of thought, paid well, provided avenues for rapid advancement if I desired, and allowed me the flexibility to tackle writing assignments and freelance work during the many lulls at my desk and away from the office.

This would only be temporary, I said to myself at the time.

A few weeks in to this new gig my byline graced the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times food section in a cover story about the return of absinthe to the American market. In a nice gesture, my bosses pulled the food section from the Sun-Times and pinned my story to the staff bulletin board with a note that read, “Congratulations to our resident food critic.” One of my co-workers, an older Jewish man named Mel, came to work with his own copy of the paper every day but mainly read the sports section. When Mel saw everyone crowded around my absinthe article he wondered what was the big deal, so he pulled out his food section, looked at the front page, then at me. I was dealing with a client on the phone but noticed Mel staring.

“What’s up, Mel?” I asked after I hung up the phone.

“There’s an article about absinthe in the Sun-Times,” Mel said. “Did you write that?”

“I did,” I replied.

“That’s you?” Mel asked again. He looked at me quizzically as if there were another Chuck Sudo in Chicago living the glamorous life of a food writer, dining on rich multi-course meals three times a day and spreading foie gras on porterhouse steaks as midday snacks when, in fact, I had a hard time keeping my fridge stocked and found myself being questioned by Mel about absinthe at a job I didn’t want. Mel was complimentary of the article and wondered why, with the talent I had, I was dealing with angry homeowners every day pissed off that the savings from their property tax appeals weren’t as large as they expected.

Once Mel found out I was a food writer he would pepper me with a litany of questions about food, drink, cooking and dining out. Mel was a bachelor survivor of the swinging 70s and ate out a lot, mainly at steakhouses. He came into work every morning looking what I imagined Larry from “Three’s Company” would resemble if he continued his nightly routine of chasing tail at the Regal Beagle. His hair and mustache were white as snow, his eyes bloodshot slates and blank stares, he often wore a striped polo shirt, jeans and sneakers and carried the Sun-Times with him to his cubicle. And Mel always had a story about his previous night out which usually involved a couple women, steaks and either flavored martinis or white zinfandel. Ironically, the names of the restaurants Mel frequented indicated he was the one living the glamorous life of a food writer in Chicago, if you find the early bird specials at suburban steakhouses sexy.

Mel’s questions ran from the simple to the mundane to the “this what keeps me up at night?” variety. What made Indian cuisine spicy? Where could he find the best Italian beef in Skokie? What was my take on flavored martinis? Could he cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a slow cooker? What was the difference between a shiraz and a syrah and is it as sweet as Mogen David? Why does liver taste like blech? Again, isn’t curry supposed to be spicy? My favorite question of his, however, had to be, "What restaurant do you think makes the best twice-baked potato?"

The day he asked me that I looked at him wide-eyed and incredulous. “What the hell are you talking about?” I shot back.

“In your opinion,” he continued.

I looked at Mel, considered the question for a few moments, and replied with a sigh, “I don’t know anyone my age or yours who would eat a twice-baked potato.”

Honestly, I didn’t mind the incessant questioning as much as Mel's lack of memory retention. I was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and Mel was Ned “Needlenose” Ryerson, answering the same queries about food, drink, cooking and dining, and wondering what I had to do to move on to February 3.

Before I knew it, a year had passed and my bosses were very happy with my job performance, so I received a raise and more responsibilities. I earned the respect of my co-workers and did the job to the best of my ability when I was on the clock. Meanwhile, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day I began to use the clean slate of Mel’s mind to hone my skills as a writer and journalist. If Mel asked a question about blackeyed peas, I was able to sell that as an article to the Sun-Times about lucky food traditions in the new year. If Mel ate barbeque over a weekend I turned it into a story about the growing number of quality rib joints in Chicago. Mel once said he couldn’t stand the taste of beets so I turned that into a story about Growing Home, an organic urban farm in Englewood that provides inner city men and women with job skills in agriculture.

Thanks to Mel I honed my ability to both sell my pitches to publications, receive first consideration for choice assignments from editors, and put together a talented staff to establish Chicagoist’s food and drink coverage as a daily must-visit for thousands of readers.

Even though I had much to write about and my byline appeared in print and online regularly, the pay for a single Sun-Times article was barely enough to cover a dinner at a restaurant I was reviewing for Chicagoist. As I headed into Year Two at the law firm I began to question whether journalism—something I fell in love with the moment I felt printer’s ink on my fingers—was a passion I still wanted to pursue. The money and security from the day job only compounded matters and there were days when I felt I should simply hang up the writing and focus on eating shit from homeowners on a daily basis.

Yet every time I would have these crises of confidence a story idea would come up to keep me from completely throwing in the towel. On the lowest days when I would numb my brain on the train ride home with my iPod on shuffle, I’d come home to a pitch from a publicist, a restaurant or one of my fellow editors that, with the distance and refocus that a good dinner and drink, a shower and some alone time could only provide, would have me sending out a return email or making a phone call and begin the early research to what would become a another story in which I was happy to immerse myself. They were distractions from the monotony of the day job, sure, but they were welcome distractions that never had me fulling saying to myself or others, “I quit.”

But Year Two at the law office quickly became Year Three and I was still stuck at my desk, working my station at the assembly line that was how we processed property tax appeals, depressed I couldn’t the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The grind of dealing with homeowners about the status of their appeals became as much a part of my personal Groundhog Day as Mel, low-paying articles and self-doubt. I was still happy to put in the work and continue writing but knowing the limited resources of local media outlets in the early 21st century I kept asking myself the same questions: Could I continue doing this for little or no pay? How could I use this to build my resume for other opportunities? Will the food writing bubble eventually burst and leave me in its wake? How much longer would my bosses at the law office allow me to indulge this sideline hobby? (And I considered it at this point a hobby as it sure wasn’t paying enough to be a career.)

In June 2010, I collaborated on a beer with Goose Island brewpub’s Jared Rouben and Rod Markus of Rare Tea Cellar, a farmhouse ale spiced with a decadent lemon tea we dubbed “Sai-Shan-Tea.” The work was hard but fruitful, I wrote at length about the brewing process at Chicagoist and in the end we wound up brewing summer in a glass—an earthy ale that tasted like an Italian lemon grove once we sprung it on the public.

Goose Island submitted Sai-Shan-Tea for judging at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver that September and the three of us were off to the Mile High City to take part in the experience. I was granted media credentials for the festival and went behind the scenes as Jared helped organize a seminar on food and beer pairings, and how to brew using farm-fresh ingredients.

Sai-Shan-Tea didn’t medal at the festival but I managed to turn in another solid series of dispatches from Denver on Chicagoist, which at the time I considered the final posts I would write for the site as the entropic cycle of day job and what I began to consider a hobby began to take its toll on my spirit. I returned to Chicago ready to ride out the rest of September and tender my resignation when I received an email from my predecessor as editor-in-chief at Chicagoist. He had accepted a job at the A.V. Club and was leaving at the end of the month. “I recommended you succeed me as editor and I feel you’re the best-qualified person for the job.”

There it was—the light at the end of the tunnel shining brightly in front of me. I knew our boss in New York City, Jen Chung, was looking for an immediate answer but I wasn’t sure if I was up for the task. I emailed Jen. “Can I give you an answer by the end of the week?” I asked. She said she would. I reached out to three people who aren’t involved with local media but knew me well and shared with them the pros and cons of accepting the job. Each of them said the same thing: “If you don’t do this, Chuck, you’ll regret it the rest of your life.”

They were right. Three days later I called Jen. She had nothing but wonderful things to say about my work on the food and drink beat, had wonderful things to say about the Goose Island series, was aware of the work I put into it and confident I would continue that as editor. The conversation put me at ease I made the right decision. All I had to do was turn in my notice to my bosses at the law office. I decided to not waste time and told Ron, my immediate supervisor, at the end of my work day. Ron first took the news to mean I was using it as leverage for another raise but, when I told him I was taking a pay cut from the law office to become editor of Chicagoist, he realized no amount of money, even the raise he offered me a few moments before, would change my mind. “To be honest, Chuck,” Ron said, I thought you would have been out of here at least a year ago but I know that this place can provide someone with a little bit of security while pursuing what they really want to do.”

Then Ron did me another solid and offered to cut my two week’s notice in half so I could get a jump start on sliding into my new job. “You’re a good worker and it’s a shame we’re going to lose you,” Ron said. “But I know where your true love lies every time I spy on your desktop remotely.” That final week was a blur as I worked to close out business at the law firm, got a head start on my duties at Chicagoist and news spread about my new adventure. But from the attorney whose name hung on the door to the lowest person on the chain of command, all were happy for me. On my final day of work in that law office there was cake, refreshments, gifts and well-wishes from my co-workers to me, and from me to them, in return.

After nearly three years in that makeshift office I was surprised at the friendships I made and the ties I was breaking. Three years is a hell of a long time to be at a job one considers temporary and there are folks at that office who work as musicians, cooks, dog rescuers, athletic and yoga instructors, fashion designers, photographers, artists and writers, and still reconcile the desire to be following their dreams with the need to haul themselves into work every day in order to keep a roof over their heads and pay the bills. Some of you are in that same position right now, wondering when to make the break or hoping for that green flash on the horizon and can turn in your aprons, your day planners, the Groundhog Day repetitive grind of the 9-to-5 and your guaranteed paychecks in order to do what you love all day, for a living. Not a day goes by where I don’t thank Providence for that law office job because it allowed me to keep my own dreams alive, by the faintest of sparks.

As I gathered my things from my desk to take the Purple Line back into Chicago one final time I stopped at Mel’s desk and left a final note for him. He left an hour prior and I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him before he left for another weekend of steak, whiskey, women and unanswered questions.

The note contained two simple sentences: “The best twice-baked potato in Chicago, in my opinion, is at Gale Street Inn in Jefferson Park. And you better let me know if I’m right."