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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lost Businesses in E-Town

We lost five retail establishments in Evanston IL in the past two days.  A fire destroyed three businesses on Davis Street at Oak.  The Pine Yard Chinese restaurant, Technicolor Nail Salon and Taco Diablo are shut, perhaps forever.  Taco Diablo inhabited the space previously occupied by Bill's Blues Bar, a venue that I loved (see this entry, and also this entry, for more on BBB).  The Pine Yard has been operating in Evanston for over 35 years.  The other two lost retail establishments were the two Dominick's stores in town, which closed when Safeway pulled the plug on its effort to profitably serve the Chicago area grocery market.  Dominick's market share dropped by 66% in about 10 years.  Safeway threw in the towel.

Retail shops and grocery stores are very important to a community.  The act of buying something from local people in a local shop strengthens the bonds in a community.  Commercial transactions are amazing examples of everyday trust. 

I was a regular customer of one of the Dominick's stores that closed.  I know the layout of the place and could whip through my grocery shopping quickly.  I knew the staff. They were dependable, decent folk who are now out of work.  I am a businessman and realize that reality cannot be denied - no profit means the end for a commercial enterprise.  The rise of Aldi's, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Walmart/Sam's Club, Food For Less and other players made the market too tough for Safeway.  Safeway's mistakes made a bad situation worse.  In spite of the inevitability of this failure, I feel bad that "my store" closed and honest, hard-working people will suffer through no fault of their own.

The three small businesses may have insurance and may rise again.  I sure hope so.  The Pine Yard in particular is an Evanston institution.  The owners of these places are classic small business people, creating local jobs through solid service businesses.  They keep our communities vital. 

It will not be a happy New Year for these closed businesses and the people that work in them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Murder and Mayhem - Eric "Guitar" Davis, Azim Hakeem, Mobeen Hakeem and Kevin Ross


If you look at the historic crime records in Chicago, you learn that the number of murder victims have trended down steadily since the mid-1970's.  There were 970 murders in Chicago in 1974. The number dropped to 435 in 2011 but bumped up to 513 in 2012 (which led to media focus on Chicago as "murder capital").  Thus far in 2013, the number of murders is down by around 20%.

None of these "big picture" numbers matter, though, because someone shot and killed Eric "Guitar" Davis.  He was found, shot in the chest,  in his car early on Monday morning.  He was over at the Kingston Mines blues club Sunday night and into the early Monday morning hours, playing and hanging out.  To his family and friends, the decline in Chicago's murder rate is not at all relevant. They have lost a beloved person to mindless violence and that is the only fact that matters.  In some Chicago neighborhoods, the murder rate did not decline.

Eric was one of those hard-working musicians that became fantastic through force of will.  He was a drummer, originally, and the son of a drummer.  Buddy Guy told Eric that guitar players get more attention, so Eric picked up the ax and started working.  I used to see him at jams years ago when he was in the early stages of his musical journey.  I saw him later fronting his band, figuring it out.  More recently, he emerged as a giant blues guitar shredder and passionate vocalist, got records out on the Delmark label and began to tour all over the place.  He was married and had 6 children - sometimes he would bring them up on the bandstand and play with them; his son on drums, his daughter on bass.  Eric was young and muscled-up.  He looked like he could be rockin' the mic at a hip-hop show, but he was a stone-cold bluesman.  It hurts to lose this guy. No suspects.  The murderer may never be caught.

Azim and Mobeen Hakeem were two brothers that operated an old-school tobacco shop on Davis Street in Evanston IL.  Mobeen had autism, and was very effective at the shop - the customers knew and liked him.  This past July, both of these harmless, low-key brothers were found shot to death in the basement of the shop.  They had been shot multiple times, and their wallets were missing.  Nothing else was taken from the shop.  The Evanston police were baffled, the family was devastated, the community was disrupted and frightened.  Since Azim and Mobeen were Muslims, there was concern that this was a hate crime.

This past Monday December 16, a man robbed the Chase Bank branch at 900 Grove Street in Evanston.   The bank personnel called the police, and they quickly ID-ed a guy matching the robber's description walking near the intersection of Maple and Davis streets, in front of the Bennison's Bakery.  They confronted him, the guy pulled out a 9 MM pistol and refused to drop the weapon (but he didn't shoot).  The cops shot and killed Kevin Ross.  He had a duffle bag full of the bank's cash.  The cops searched his apartment and storage lockers and found the social security card and ID's of Azim and Mobeen Hakeem.  Kevin Ross apparently was a one-man crime wave, with multiple bank robberies. Perhaps he killed a bunch of people, too. 

Every murder creates deep agony.  The losses accumulate.  A rising blues star is randomly murdered, leaving behind 6 kids and a wife (and legions of friends and admirers).  Two quiet brothers are ruthlessly murdered, a family grieves, a business closes, a community is damaged.  A criminal is shot and killed; perhaps his crimes were unknown to his friends and family.  They, too, are devastated by grief, and perhaps by shame.

Now think about 450 - 500 stories like this every year in the City of Chicago.  Think about the murder rate in the United States; 14,827 people killed in the U.S. in 2012, a murder rate over 4 times higher than Japan, Australia, Britain, Germany and France.

It is a helluva lot of loss and agony.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Robert W. Gibson: 1945 - 2013

It was one of those moments that was both devastating and guilt-producing.  I came home from on Monday, work, picked up the mail that had been shoved through the slot in the front door and found a holiday card from an old friend in Portland OR.  To be specific, the card was from the wife of my old friend.  This didn't surprise me, since Julie sometimes sent out the Christmas cards for her husband. I opened the card and discovered that my old friend and mentor, Bob Gibson, had died. I was shocked and was immediately awash in grief.

Then I found out that Bob Gibson died in May.  The next wave was guilt.  I allowed our relationship to atrophy and I was out of touch for three years; I didn't know about his situation.  I didn't help Bob or Julie.  I feel bad about this, because I owe Bob so much.

Bob was my first boss at my first job after graduate school - I joined the Chicago office of Bank of America. I was 23 years old; he was 32.  He was a wicked fit, former Division I college fullback (from Northwestern University - he played for Ara Parsegian in the 1960's before Ara left to coach Notre Dame).  Bob was also wicked smart, and hardworking.  I learned so much from this guy - how to take charge of a high-conflict meeting, how to behave with clients and senior management of the bank, how to analyze financial data, and much more.  I still use the things Bob taught me, every day.

Bob was also a kind person.  I never remember him raising his voice when I screwed up (which I did regularly).  He invited me over to his house, where I first met Julie (then his fiancĂ©).  He was a very active person - physically, intellectually, socially.  He climbed mountains, skied, played handball, bicycled Europe.  He had a big heart for dogs.  He knew a lot about wine.  He was an astute observer of the economic scene.  He was a venture capitalist.

Bob was a Chicagoan, from the north side.  He attended Lane Tech High School (the famous public school in the northwest part of the city) and people there still remember him.  He lived in San Francisco and London before settling in Portland OR.  I would visit him when I traveled to Portland to see my brother.  I also spoke to Bob when I was in need of advice or insight into a difficult business situation.

I last saw Bob during my trip to Portland during Thanksgiving of 2010.  He had just survived prostate cancer, and he looked lean and mean.  I thought he had soundly beaten the  "Big C".  Then earlier in the year, Bob was afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia ("ALL"), a particularly nasty cancer.  It can come on suddenly, with illness occurring within days of its appearance.  The survival rate for adults with ALL is around 40%.

I am left with that old cliché - remember your friends and family, stay in touch, cherish them while you can, because they can be snatched away at any time.

Good bye, Bob.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Think About Others

Maybe this has happened to you:

You are striding purposely down a big city street.  Perhaps you are walking from the train station to your office.  It is not a good weather day - it is cold, grey  and there is snow on the ground.  Many other commuters surround you; you are moving in the flow of pedestrian traffic, making quick alterations in your direction and trajectory to avoid collisions with other purposeful people.  You glance to your right and you see him.

He is not dressed adequately for the cold weather.  The whites of his eyes have a yellowish hue.  He is not very clean, and he is rattling a plastic Big Gulp cup that has about 6 quarters in it.  He is holding a sign that might say "Broke and All Alone."

You pat your pockets for a couple of single dollar bills - pulling out the wallet to contribute to this fellow would break your momentum and you are in a big damned hurry, as usual.  There are no singles in your pocket; you grimace and walk on by.  At first, you berate yourself for not being a "good person" and providing some small bit of help to a troubled human being.  This causes you to feel guilty, and the guilt quickly morphs into resentment.  So whose fault is it that the guy is "Broke and All Alone?" Not yours!  Maybe he is a DRUG ABUSER or CRAZY or A DANGER TO OTHERS!  He needs to take care of his own self, goddammit, take responsibility for his circumstances, make better decisions, etc. etc.  You work like mad to justify your lack of compassion.

I am a lucky person.  I live and work among lucky people.  Through some combination of good fortune, strong cognitive skills, family status and clear-headed decisions, these folks are settled and secure in circumstances that are quite comfortable. Some of these folks might think that homeless people are a nuisance.  "They should pull themselves together and get a job!" And so on.  The lucky people don't know how to think about others who are not lucky.

Here are the facts - some people are ill.  They have brain disorders that make it difficult to perform the activities of daily living, let alone the activities of a successful careerist. It is not easy being dirt poor.  Getting the basics to survive can involve a very long day of very hard work, lots of walking from one place to another, coping with rejection, dealing with unfriendly police and unkind fellow citizens.

I learned some time ago that just because I can do something with relative ease (due to my fortunate background, the color of my skin, my outstanding education, etc.), that doesn't mean that the homeless guy on the corner can "buck up" and succeed just like I did.  I also learned that just because I have done my "stuff," that doesn't make me an expert in how others should do their "stuff."

It is true that everyone bears some responsibility for their condition, and that perseverance and determination can overcome adversity.  It is also true that random events make a huge difference.  What is your genetic make-up?  How rich were your parents?  How much trauma did you experience in your life?  It is important to think about these things when you think about other people.  Think about these things before you spout glib opinions.  Think about these things before you pass judgment on the guy who is "Broke and All Alone."