Sunday, February 27, 2005

Check Again in a Few Days

NO ENTRIES till Wednesday, or Thursday if I'm tired. Time to go there are see that.


Saturday, February 26, 2005

Item from the past: Feb. 11, 2002

Most of the companies that vanished when the high-tech bubble burst didn’t leave a trace, except maybe for pockets of sublease space here and there, and a lot of cautionary tales about the “New Economy.” Not so marchFIRST, the doomed entity formed by the late ’90s merger of management consultant Whittman-Hart and Web consultant USWeb/CKS. The very visible remains of that high-tech folly, a half-complete corporate campus west of the West Loop, will soon be auctioned to the highest bidder.

In its heady days, marchFIRST envisioned developing a $115 million headquarters and training facility, and in 1999 convinced the City of Chicago of its vision too. Rather than see thousands of high-tech jobs flee the city, that year Mayor Daley agreed to pony up a $23.5 million subsidy in the form of tax increment financing.

The campus is a city block in size, or about three acres. The site is bounded on the east by Elizabeth St., which is only a block west of Racine, with Fulton marking its southern boundary. The neighborhood, characterized largely by the food distribution businesses, is collectively known as the Fulton Market. Nearby neighbors include a large ADM facility that sports grain elevators, and the Wichita Packing Co., specialists in pork ribs. Yet the site isn’t very far from the Loop, as the view from one of the campus conference rooms shows. The entire arc of the Loop, from North Michigan Ave. south to the Sears Tower, seems quite close from that vantage.

The campus was to have included a new seven-story office building measuring about 208,000 sf, connected to a nine-story, 664-space parking garage. Turner Construction was hired to build the new buildings, and worked on them until December 2000. Since work stopped, the partly complete office-garage structure has forlornly braved the elements from behind a chain-link fence.

Two other buildings at the site, the 130,000-sf 300 North Elizabeth and the 42,500-sf 320 North Elizabeth, are loft rehabs that were essentially complete when marchFIRST went belly up. In fact, the company was using much of the rehab space when it folded, leaving behind a certain amount of office fixtures and furniture, plus fairly sophisticated telecommunications wiring, all of which is included in the auction.

Walking through the North Elizabeth buildings in their current state is something like touring a ghost town—a well-appointed ghost town with an odd color scheme emphasizing purples and reds. Track lighting, a few hundred expensive Acron office chairs, and other touches attest to the fact that marchFIRST once did have some money, and was willing to spend it on its new headquarters. A scattering of papers and interdepartmental envelopes and office manuals in various cubicles shows that when the end came, it came before there was time to clean up all of the debris of this particular Internet dream.

2005 Postscript: If I remember right, the property was never auctioned. The last time I took a look at this property, from my commuter train, the unfinished portion was still unfinished.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

Harry’s Hot Dogs

On the checkerboard of downtown Chicago, Harry’s Hot Dogs is one city block north and one city block west of my office. Yet until three weeks ago, I’d never stopped there to eat. No special reason, just one of those places you pass by.

In January, Neil Steinberg mentioned the place again in his column in the Sun-Times, and that reminded me that I should try it. Harry’s is at the corner of Randolph and Franklin. At another corner of that intersection is an incredibly ugly Walgreens, a box of brownish pre-cast concrete. Cater-cornered from Harry’s is a mid-sized office building dating from a dreary period in office design, occupied by the phone giant SBC. At the other corner is a parking lot.

Harry’s doesn’t have to do much to stand out at this corner, but it adds some color to the area anyway: happy yellow awnings with red letters, big picture windows and some neon signs. Harry’s takes the entire first floor of a dwarf of a building—four stories—the upper stories of which are occupied by the HQ of the Showmen’s League of America, the trade group for circuses and carnivals. That’s another blog all together, one that I will write up someday when I visit the Showmen’s memorial in the suburbs; but I will mention the small elephants, the group’s symbol, over each and every upper-story window of this building.

There’s an actual Harry. His name is Harry Heftman, and according to Steinberg’s columns, he’s 95, and has owned this hot dog restaurant since 1956. When I went in a few weeks ago, there was a small old man behind the counter, moderated stooped, wearing enormous glasses and sporting a head of thin silver hair, but no bald spots.

“Are you Harry?” I asked. He said he was. He’s in fine shape—doesn’t look a day over 80. Or 85. I ordered a hamburger, and he rung it up. He asked what I did, and I told him I edited a magazine. Easier, I think, than going into detail about writing and editing for both print and on-line products, but maybe I’m not giving Harry enough credit for keeping up with things.

He presides over a classic Chicago hot stand. It’s got the worn counter behind which everything is cooked, the hiss of fat frying, the clink of metal on iron, the smell of cooking meat. Customers sit at booth-style seats, bright blue seatbacks with brown tables and space for either two or four, or at a half-dozen stools along a long ledge, looking out the window. There’s total seating for maybe 35 customers at a time. Decoration for the brown walls has accumulated down the years. I think Harry likes the Chicago skyline, and the Cubs. Vienna Beef has provided a couple of hot dog posters. There’s a framed poster of a Boeing 747. And two of Steinberg’s columns hang on the wall, framed.

Today I had a chili dog. Truth be told, Gold Coast Dogs used to make better hot dogs, and Fast Track makes a meaner hamburger (see April 14, 2003). But Harry’s serves up pretty good grub. Harry himself doesn’t always stay behind the counter, at least he didn’t today, shuffling between it and the back room, and occasionally busing a table. He would check the grill, and have a word with one of the three or four workers. Other people would say hello to him.

As I was leaving today, I spoke to him again. I think he remembered me, which is more than I can usually manage with people I’ve only met briefly. But maybe that talent has helped keep the hot dog business going all these years.

“How often do you come in?” I asked.

“Four days a week,” he answered. “Gives me something to do.”

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

New Things This Winter

We had a fine snow fall downtown today, hours of blowing ice granules, but there was no trace of it in the suburbs. Must have been authentic urban snow.

Netflix seems to work as advertised. When writing about the video industry recently, I was intrigued enough by the service to sign up for it. Interesting how something born and bred on the Internet uses the USPS so effectively. You order the disks, and they show up in distinctive black and red packs.

The Twilight Samurai is a fine movie, by the way. The Twilight Zone Samurai is a concept someone needs to develop.

DSL’s attitude toward providing double-time Internet access to my house: mañana, señor. I remember reading about some of the connection issues associated with DSL, but those were abstractions. Now I’m living them. It works when it feels like it.

I won’t bother describing my adventures in Earthlink tech support limbo. The briar-patch of tech support is too common an experience to need describing, but I will say I learned to recognize the ominous hold-time pops and clicks that meant I was going to be cut off soon, accidentally-we’re-sorry, and have to start the whole automated answer treadmill again.

GE Triton XL Dishwasher. The first major appliance that came with the house to give up the ghost was the dishwasher (see August 17, 2003). So we bought another one recently at a certain big box retailer. You have to like that name, Triton, which it shares with a moon of Neptune and, before that, a minor sea god “cast in the shape of a merman… His commonest representation was as a creature with a human head and torso, but the tail of a fish.” (From the incomparable Gods and Mortals in Classical Mythology: A Dictionary by Michael Grant and John Hazel.)

It’s sleek and white. It cleans dishes. But it would be better if there were a small picture on it somewhere of a merman washing dishes.

T Mobile. So far so good. A plan with two phones, and no extra charge for calling the between them. Got the first bill the other day. No surprises. Yet.

Margaritaville Calypso Coconut Shrimp. “Margaritaville is always just as close as your freezer.” Acquired a large box half-price at a certain warehouse store not long ago. Not bad for frozen shrimp. But not worth full price.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Pizza Planet

Borderline sick today. Virus traveled from child to child to adult to other adult me, lodging in my throat, making it scratchy. Bad enough that I stayed home (Yuriko’s recovering, too), but not so bad that I didn’t listen in on a couple of in-house conference calls and check my e-mail a few times.

One message thoughtfully offered me material to publish, no charge (my italics):


”Doctor's Orders for Living and Working Stress-Free:
How to Identify and Relieve Stress-Related Illnesses

“Everyone deals with stress at some point in their lives; some deal with it every day. Stress can be a factor at work or home, but when stress gets out of hand, it can not only have a negative psychological impact but can manifest itself physically. Research has shown that stress actually causes eighty to ninety percent of all illnesses. Think what that means for workplace productivity and profits!"

Come again? Eighty to ninety percent? If only the inhabitants of medieval Europe had known about modern stress relief, millions could have been saved from the Black Death, it seems.

Then there’s the matter of that last, breathless line. If employers, generally speaking, really believed that stress reduction would boost “productivity and profits,” they would, generally speaking, pay their workers better for less work, which would seem like a swell formula for stress reduction.

It’s too much to expect a lot of meaningful information in press releases like this, though they can be a good way of disseminating basic facts. The other day, I did an article on Domino’s Pizza, king of industrialized delivery pizza, and there was a document in the media section of the company web site claiming that the chain delivers a million pizzas a day, worldwide. (That would be about 130 pizzas per day per store, so it’s plausible.) Even if the figure’s not precisely accurate, it’s still a meaty statistic, almost literally.

Imagine a million pizzas laid out in some flat place, maybe one of the Salt Flats. A remarkable vista of tomatoes, bread and cheese. Until, that is, you had to figure out how to escape from the pizza plain. As you crossed it, the pizza-ground-mush would probably become as sticky as mud, and enlivened by hordes of insects and animals coming to feast. So it’s just as well, then, that Domino’s delivers its million daily products individually, or at least in small numbers.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Things That Matter

Whaddaya know, I actually got a comment from someone I don’t know yesterday (the first one, from "Hash"). Not bad, that comment function, even if it hauls in snide, puerile rants from nowhere. Lighten up, kid.

Lileks has written about getting unsolicited e-mails like that, wondering what the senders’ motives could be, since, last we heard, not even the prisoners at Guantanamo are being forced to read web sites they don't like, with their eyelids pried back (Clockwork Orange style). He probably gets loads of messages telling him to knock off writing about unimportant things like, say, his daughter, ’cause he’s taking up valuable space on the Internet, crowding out people with Opinions about Things That Matter.

Bollocks. Primary experience is still primary. It’s possible to drown yourself in secondary experiences. Sometimes it poses a real danger: turn up your car stereo real loud, so loud that you’re not annoyed by that siren, and bam, a fire truck takes you out. Usually, though, the only danger is turning into a shriveled, stumpy soul who’s bored whenever the electronic entertainment switches off.


Monday, February 21, 2005

Vol. 2, No. 1

It’s been two years since I started publishing a web log, so I thought it was time to start another volume, like you might start another volume of a paper diary. Mostly, I want the thing to look a little different, and I want the comment function to function. Never could quite make the thing work in the old Been There, Seen That, which is still around.

Content’s going to be about the same. An emphasis on what I’ve actually witnessed, a de-emphasis on current event or pop culture or sociological or other speculation, though these things sometimes creep in. I figure there’s tanker-loads of that sort of thing elsewhere; most of it written by people who have no more experience with the subject than what they’ve read or heard; and meanwhile, there aren’t as many people paying attention to their day-to-day lives, where there are some marvels, sometimes.

Not that I have any marvels to report from this long weekend, here in winter stasis, the tiring time of the season. Snow came, but melted. Clouds remained. I went swimming, read Kerouac, watched episodes of The Office on DVD, minded children, did errands and chores, bought a few things. The stuff of a good weekend, stretched over three days.