Last week Libby Hellmann and I were on a library panel discussion in Romeo Michigan, north of Ann Arbor and northwest of Detroit. Also on the panel were Marcia Talley, Nancy Martin and Nina Wright. Libby brought up Chicago politics and Chicago’s “seamy underbelly.”
What, I asked, was a seamy underbelly? Underbelly you could understand, what with mean streets and alleys and plots hatched in secret places. But seams? Like coal seams? Some thought it was streaks of dirt.
Later that day, I e-researched and found that the word “seamy” came from the perception that the inside of a coat, where the seams hide, was unpleasant and also attracted lint, dirt, and crud of that sort.
This clumsy segue leads to the big question. Yes, Chicago has a seamy underbelly. There is a lot corruption, bribery, and political chicanery here. But the city works. It is clean. The streets are mostly safe, as I can tell you. I walk a lot, for writing ideas, and I don’t feel threatened. The police response time is good. The police are well paid. There was a time, long gone, when Mayor Daley The First said that you didn’t have to pay cops much because they could always steal. Those days are over.
So here’s the big question: Can you excuse corruption when the total result is a city that works? Is it possible that if all city transactions were as regulated as post office employees, little would get done and we’d all go postal? Does corruption in modest amounts grease the wheels?
Yes, I know. We’d like a city that works without the corruption. I’d like a magic wand to wave over life, too.
This is one of those many, many questions I just don’t know the answer to. Or is there an answer? Grant me my premise for a moment – a city that works with corruption versus a city without corruption that doesn’t work so well.
Outside my window, a couple of dozen sailboats are sliding around on Lake Michigan. Tour boats are following their usual courses. The buses are running on time. The streets are clean.
Maybe this all shouldn’t work as well as it does.
Somebody out there, please respond.