From the desk of Robert Loerzel

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Green Mill founder’s early years

Years before Tom Chamales became famous as the founder of the Green Mill, he’d made headlines in newspapers across the country—when he was put on trial in 1907 for keeping a Chicago saloon open on Sunday.

I dig into that history in the latest chapter of The Coolest Spot in Chicago:
A History of Green Mill Gardens and the Beginnings of Uptown. This one is called “The Early Years of Green Mill Founder Tom Chamales,” and it traces the Greek immigrant’s story up until 1910, when he took over Pop Morse’s roadhouse.

I found it particularly noteworthy how prosecutor James J. Barbour used anti-immigrant rhetoric against Chamales during that 1907 trial. Sadly, the xenophobia still sounds familiar: “If Tom Chamales, who came to this fruitful country from Greece some years ago, does not like the laws of this country he can go back to the country he came from.”

But Chamales’s attorney, Alfred Austrian, praised immigrants like him, who’d come from other parts of the world to form a new community in Chicago. “This mixture is the backbone and sinew of American citizenship,” Austrian told jurors.

I’ve been posting a chapter of this saga each week, but I’m not sure if I can keep up that pace. So don’t get worried if there’s a bit of a longer wait for some of the upcoming chapters. Stay tuned.

Carol’s Pub recap

WBEZ’s Curious City team posted a fun recap of the event I did last week at Carol’s Pub with Jason Marck and the Chicago Brewseum’s Liz Garibay: “Everything we learned about Chicago beer history in a night of drinking at Carol’s Pub.”

Threepenny and some German homework

For years, I’ve been a fan of the songs Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht wrote for their musical The Threepenny Opera, but somehow, I’d never actually seen the show onstage until last week, when I caught the new staging by Theo Ubique in Evanston. Located on Howard Street right across the street from Chicago, Theo Ubique is an ideal venue to see the show—a cabaret-style room where the actors roam amid the audience members sitting around small tables. At moments, some of the performers were just a few inches away from me as they sang, looking straight into my eyes.

The show runs through April 30, and tickets are scarce. See it if you can. Here’s the review Chris Jones wrote for the Chicago Tribune, wherein he called it “a fresh and lively take on a tricky, not-for-all-tastes show that, when done well, always reminds you that a whole lot of what theater people now think of as fresh and radical, Brecht was already doing in the 1920s.”

This show’s most famous song, by far, is “Mack the Knife.” I’ve long been fascinated at the way this song became a jaunty pop hit for Bobby Darrin, with popular recordings by other singers including Louis Armstrong, despite the fact that the subject matter is so dark and disturbing. Or maybe that’s part of the explanation for its popularity?

Most of those recordings use the English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein, which are a loose translation of Brecht’s original German lyrics. I think Blitzstein did an excellent job of transforming this song into one with dark humor and English idioms that would appeal to a wide audience. However, this is a lot that got lost in translation.

Some years ago, I did a translation of Brecht’s lyrics for “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” when I was taking a German class at Harper College in Palatine. (My skills at reading, writing, speaking, and understanding German have fallen into disuse since then, and I find myself relying on Google translations, but maybe I’ll refresh my German one of these days.)

For my translation of Brecht’s lyrics, I was as literal as possible. That doesn’t necessarily make for the best version if you want English lyrics fit for singing, but I think it helps to convey some of the darkness that’s obscured in the American hit tune. So, here’s my German homework from 15 years ago:

And the shark has teeth
And wears them in his face
And Macheath has got a knife,
But this knife, one does not see.

Oh, how red the shark’s fins are,
when the blood flows.
Mackie the Knife wears a glove,
From which no atrocity can be read.

In the Thames’s green waters,
People suddenly fall.
Is it either plague or cholera?
No, it means Macheath’s been around.

On a beautiful blue Sunday,
A dead man lies on the beach
And a man goes around the corner
Known as Mackie the Knife.

And Schul Meier is still missing
And so many rich men,
Mackie the Knife has his money,
But no one can prove anything.

Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her breast,
And on the dock goes Macheath,
Who knows nothing at all.

Where is Alfons Gilte, the cabman?
Will this ever come to sunlight?
Anyone could know,
Macheath knows nothing.

And the great fire in Soho,
Seven children and an old man
In the crowd, Mackie the Knife—
He’s not asked and doesn’t know.

And the underaged widow
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was raped.
Mackie, what was your price?

For some are in darkness
And some are in light.
One sees those in light,
But those in darkness, one sees not.

Slag Meadow gets wet

One of my favorite nature spots in Chicago is Big Marsh Park—just one of several wonderful patches on wilderness on the Southeast Side. Paved trails were added at Big Marsh within the past year or so, making it much easier to get around on foot.

Last fall, the Geographic Society of Chicago handed out a map calling the park’s southeast area “Slag Meadow.” Not the most appealing name, but it gives you a good idea of the site’s industrial history.

When I returned to Big Marsh for a walk last Saturday morning, I noticed something interesting about the so-called Slag Meadow. It’s now a wetland! There was a fair amount of water in this marshy area, attracting some interesting birds: blue-winged teals, green-winged teals, greater yellowlegs, and lesser yellowlegs, along with some of the more typical birds I’d expect, like mallards and killdeers.
During my Big Marsh visit, I also saw a DeKay’s brown snake on a walking path. You can see my video of it on Twitter. In case you’re wondering, DeKay’s brown snakes are not venomous. Another one of these snakes was lying dead and very flat on the trail nearby—apparently run over by either a bicycle or a motor vehicle.
I was fooled when I saw what seemed to be 16 or 17 great blue herons perched at one area of Big Marsh. They were too far off in the distance for me to get a good look, but it seemed odd that they were standing so still. Later on, when I edited my photos, I realized they were fakes!

A local biologist told me on Twitter that these decoys are intended to make black-crowned night herons feel more comfortable about nesting in this area. (At least, that’s what I think the concept is. Maybe someone else can explain it better.)

A coyote at rest

On a recent walk though Graceland Cemetery, I noticed one of the coyotes that inhabit this graveyard, calmly and perhaps sleepily sitting in a sunny spot. I think it eyed me, as the coyotes usually do, but I didn’t approach it, and it just sat there, looking so relaxed.

When I post photos or videos of these coyotes, people often ask: Is that a collar it’s wearing? And the answer is yes. Several coyotes live in the cemetery, and some of them have tracking colors as well as orange trackers in their ears. The Urban Coyote Research Project is tracking their activities for scientific research.

There was one fellow on Twitter who used to criticize me for publicly revealing the location of these coyotes, fearing that people might go to Graceland to harass the coyotes. Honestly, I think that the presence of these critters in the cemetery is so well known by now that it’s impossible to hide the fact that they’re there. And I sure hope people don’t hurt these animals.

If you happen to see them, give them some distance. They seem to be very accustomed to the presence of humans in their habitat, and they generally seem to go about their activities while keeping an eye on nearby people.

From the desk of Robert Loerzel

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