“Personal Prejudices” from Sydney J. Harris

Sydney J. Harris (1917-1986) was one of my favorite newspaper columnists.  He began writing his column in the Chicago Daily News in 1944.  By 1978, when the Daily News folded and he moved over to the Sun-Times, Harris was syndicated nationwide in hundreds of papers.  He continued writing until his death.

000--Strictly PersonalI sometimes found myself at odds with his opinions.  But Harris expected that, saying that people “would stop reading if they always agreed with me.”  And his column was wonderfully eclectic.  One of his best features was the occasional snippets of obscure-but-fascinating facts collected under the heading “Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things.”  I liked that device so much that I’ve been using it in my own Bowlers Journal columns for years.

Harris published ten books of collected columns.  Obviously, much of the material is dated.  But many of his “Personal Prejudices” aphorisms still ring true, even sixty years later.  Here’s a sampling of them from his first book, Strictly Personal

*Almost all of mankind’s troubles may be attributed to the fact that it is infinitely easier to hate something than to understand it.

*Nobody is more insufferable than the fool who happens to be right by chance.

*It is the fear of being called a coward that makes most men courageous in a crisis; but real courage consists of doing what you know is right, regardless of what men may call you.

*The wistful adoration of celebrities is one of the surest signs of a weak intellect.

*There are only three things that no man will believe about himself—that his sense of humor is deficient, that he is not well-bred, and that he is not somehow appealing to women.

*Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things that we did not do that is insufferable.

*I know some people who are against fine weather if they think other folks are having more fun out of it than they are.

*What perverse instinct prompts people who are getting off at the second floor to push themselves to the rear of a crowded elevator?

*The best company consists of those who combine cynicism and good nature; mere cynicism is depressing, and mere good nature is dull.

*Home-owners ought to be fined for not having the house numbers largely and distinctly visible on their front doors.

*A “reasonable” man is not one who depends solely on reasoning, but one who knows the limits of reason and the place that faith must begin.

*There is little hope for the human race so long as each of us looks for his own face first in a group photograph.

*My chief objection to the self-made man is that he is so pleased with his maker.

*Most parents don’t realize that trying to win a child’s love without first gaining his respect is the surest way to make him contemptuously disobedient.

*I would rather stay up late arguing with friends than get a good night’s sleep.


My Own Private Nuke (6-28-1956)

Once again, Chicago was the leader in developing atomic energy.  Today the first privately-owned nuclear reactor was turned on.

Fourteen years before, man had first split the atom at the University of Chicago.  That was a World War II government project.  The atomic bomb had followed.

But the war was long over.  Federal authorities had finally given the green light to American business.  Atomic energy would now be harnessed for peaceful purposes.


The new reactor was located at the Illinois Institute of Technology–specifically, the Armour Research Foundation.  Twenty-four industrial firms had joined IIT to fund the $750,000 program.  The reactor was nicknamed “the atomic furnace.”

The 1942 atom-split had been shrouded in wartime secrecy.  This morning’s event was open to the public.  The Armour building was packed with reporters as director Haldon Leedy described what was going to happen.

Leedy said there was no danger operating a nuclear reactor in the middle of a crowded city.  The furnace itself was made of concrete five feet thick, and numerous other safeguards were in place.  Lab workers and the people of Chicago would be shielded from any radioactive leak.

As an added bonus, the reactor would not pollute the air.  “No fumes, gasses, smoke, or other materials will be exhausted,” Leedy explained.  All those noxious byproducts would be blocked by a special containment system.

Atomic energy had many possible uses.  Nuclear power was a cheap, endless source of fuel.  New plastics and other synthetics would be developed.  Radiation could be used to sterilize food, to destroy disease molds–perhaps even in the fight against cancer.

Dr. Remley at the controls

Dr. Remley at the controls

The briefing concluded.  At 11:15 Dr. Martin Remley sat down at a control console outside the reactor room.  He began flicking switches.

On the other side of a plate glass window, behind two airlock doors, the atom furnace began humming.  An alarm bell clanged.  Overhead, a signal light flashed the words “REACTOR ON.”

The IIT atom furnace was a vision of the future.  Atomic energy for commercial use was here to stay.  And though critics continue to point out safety concerns, it’s difficult to imagine a world without nuclear power.



Tast-e Haste-e—A Lost Chicago Drive-in

Last month I celebrated Superdawg on the death of its founder.  Now is a good time to remember its onetime rival down Milwaukee Avenue—Taste-e Hast-e.

Taste-e Hast-e (1978)

Taste-e Hast-e (1978)

My earliest memories of the place were of a portable stand on the sidewalk line at 5446 North Milwaukee Avenue.  The food was prepared in a little garage at the back of the property.  In 1955 a permanent building with a parking lot went up on the site.

When I first started eating here, we called the place Hasty Tasty.   That may have been a simple mistake—or, as rumor had it, another drive-in had already trademarked that name, so the owners on Milwaukee Avenue had to restyle their business as Tast-e Hast-e.  Whatever the reason, both names stayed in common usage.

Tast-e Hast-e didn’t have carhops, and the hot dogs themselves were nothing special.  What set it apart from other frankfurter emporiums were the trimmings.  “Everything on” meant you got mustard, tomato, onions, cucumber, lettuce, dill pickles, piccalilli, and both green and red peppers.  My dad appreciated all that stuff, so he’d simply tell the man, “Run it through the garden.”

Around 1980 a branch called Bowser Dog opened at 4504 West Irving Park Road, but it never attained the popularity of the original.  Both Tast-e and Bowser closed during the 1990s.


Then and Now, 119th-Sangamon

1954--119th Street @ Sangamon, view east

1954–119th Street @ Sangamon, view east

2014--the same location

2015–the same location

Our location is a few blocks west of Halsted Street.  In 1954 this part of the West Pullman community was home to many small factories.  The Broadway-State streetcar line—CTA’s longest—had its southern terminal here.  A ribbon commercial strip is evident along 119th Street.

Today many of the factories are gone.  There are fewer businesses on 119th Street.  CTA service continues along the street, though the buses now go only as far north as the Red Line station at 95th-State.





Long John’s Sign Raid (6-18-1857)

Long John Wentworth—all 6 feet 6 inches of him—was elected Mayor of Chicago in the spring of 1857.  He had pledged to clean up the city.  On this date, he kept part of that promise.

The city’s sidewalks were still made of wooden planks.  In the downtown area, many merchants had erected large signs and awnings over the public walk.  They also set out display cases and piled up wooden boxes.  People had to step into the muddy street to get around them.

Mayor Wentworth

Mayor Wentworth

There were laws against these obstructions.  They had never been enforced.  Maybe Long John had banged into an overhanging sign once too often.  Whatever the reason, he decided to do something about it.

The textbook way would start with the police giving the merchant a ticket.  Then there would be a court hearing, perhaps delayed by continuances for a few months.  In the end, the judge might make the offender pay a fine—or might not.  All this time, the obstruction would still be in place.

That wasn’t good enough for Long John.  He believed in direct action.  Late on the evening of June 18, he assembled his police.  He ordered them to get rid of any sign or barrel or wooden Indian that was blocking the public sidewalk.  The cops fanned out and went to work.

Long John had hired a fleet of wagons for the occasion.  They slowly drove through the streets while the police tossed the signs and other junk into them.  When everything was collected, it was dumped into a pile outside the city market.

6-18--sign raid2.jpg

The next morning, the offenders were invited to come and pick up their property.  Many complained that the Mayor had acted illegally.  They said the cops had been drunk and caused needless damage.  One dentist ran a newspaper ad, saying “Long John or one of his imps stole my sign away, but not my official instruments.  I remain in business at 77 Lake Street.”

But the sidewalks were now clear.  Long John knew that the public backed him, and there was little chance of nuisance lawsuits—the city still had very few lawyers.  That bit of progress would come later.


Chicago’s Little Green Book

In 1966, as the so-called Cultural Revolution spread through China, Americans became aware of a little red book called Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.  The title said it all—here were 304 pages of observations on life, the universe, and everything, drawn from the works of Communist China’s dictator.  Millions of Chinese youth were seen carrying copies of this secular Bible as they ran amuck through their country.

Mao Book

Such a book was a natural for parody.  In 1968 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s wisdom was collected in Quotations From Chairman LBJ.  Conservative pundit William F. Buckley was the subject of Quotations From Chairman Bill.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, longtime mayor Richard J. Daley had become a polarizing figure.  In June 1969, University of Wisconsin grad student Peter Yessne compiled a little green book titled Quotations From Mayor Daley.Daley Quotations

The book is 125 pages long, divided into 24 chapters.  Some of the chapter titles include How to Get Elected, The Correct Handling of Riots and Demonstrators, On the Power of Patronage, Graceful Concessions, and The Limits of Conviction.  There’s even a chapter called Bipartisanship—which consists of a single quotation from Daley telling how the Democrats will spread the word about their candidates in the upcoming election.

There are plenty of the famous Daley malaprops here.  Reading the book, it’s best to keep in mind the advice of the mayor’s press secretary, who told reporters to print what Daley meant, not what he said.  (Come to think of it, today we still hear political lackeys covering for their boss the same way.)

Quotations From Mayor Daley is an entertaining book for anyone interested in the golden age of the Chicago Democrat Machine.  Inexpensive copies are easy to find.


Then and Now, Higgins-Cumberland

1955--Higgins Avenue @ Cumberland, view east

1955–Higgins Avenue @ Cumberland, view east

2015--the same location

2015–the same location

Sixty years ago, this intersection was in unincorporated Norwood Park Township, a half-mile west of the Chicago city limits at Canfield Avenue.  Both Higgins and Cumberland were two-lane rural roads.  But that was soon to change.

O’Hare Airport was opened to commercial traffic in 1955.  A few years later the Northwest (Kennedy) Expressway was constructed just south of here, and eventually the ‘L’ came through.  Today this stretch of Higgins serves as the boundary between Chicago and Park Ridge, with large hotels, office buildings, and apartments on the Chicago side of the border.



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