Mayor Jane Byrne and husband Jay McMullen, Cabrini-Green, Spring, 1981
Last weekend: 55 shootings. 11 dead. That was the score the weekend before this Memorial Day weekend.
Few pay any attention. It’s just a number happening somewhere else. Unless a bullet goes though your window. Or though a loved one’s heart. Or….
Lori Lightfoot, you must do something. And I have an idea.
You can take a page out of your only female predecessor’s political playbook: While you can’t move to an apartment in Cabrini-Green because they’re gone, you can move to some other place where the bullets are flying. Like fighting Jane did. Temporarily.
I have just the place for you. My good friend has a beautifully renovated apartment for rent on the first floor of a two-flat that she bought in Englewood–and she lives upstairs. Her tenants are leaving. Too dangerous to stay, they say. Because their son was riding his bike a fraction of an inch and a fraction of a second from where bullets flew and a murder took place. His father did take a bullet, though. He lived. He was not the intended target—but he was shot in the hand by a stray.
Jane Byrne calmed things down when she moved into Cabrini in the Spring of 1981, where there’d been 37 shootings and 11 murders over a three month period. Because she was there and the residents knew she meant business. I know because I was with her on a daily basis back then. I was working as a new reporter for the famous City News Bureau of Chicago–where every reporter worth his/her salt worked a stint to learn how to be the best.
And they assigned me to the morning Cabrini/Jane beat while she lived there. I had to be there early in the day when she came out in one piece (that was news) and I had to ask her a few questions to make sure there wasn’t a bullet she was hiding anywhere on her person. Like, how’d ya sleep, mayor? Or, how was your breakfast? Or, what’d you make for your husband Jay for dinner last night?
One morning, the limo waiting for her at Cabrini was scheduled to take her to O’Hare Airport where she and Jay were taking a plane to New York for a wedding. The union of Hugh Carey, Governor of New York and Evangeline Gouletas, semi-sleazy Chicago real estate developer. (The scoop was that he needed her money for his third campaign for governor of New York, which never came about. And they divorced a few years later.)
“Mayor, what are you giving them for a wedding present?” I asked.
“Oh!“ she demurred. “We’re going to wait till we get there and check where she’s registered and then decide.”
Seemed reasonable to me–and I loved the girl talk.
My future husband–we wouldn’t be married until the summer of 1982–the late esteemed journalist Paul McGrath had left the profession and was Jane’s personal political advisor at that time.
He had been Deputy Mayor briefly after she was elected in 1979, as he’d advised her right into office. And she felt she owed him. And she didn’t want to lose his wisdom and instincts, which were considerable.
Later in 1979, though, he decided politics really wasn’t for him and he took a job at Chicago Magazine as their political columnist. Late in 1980, Jane begged him to come back to work for her personally, not in City Hall. And to entice him, she gave him three years of salary in advance that was intended to last through the election of 1983. He said yes (I didn’t think it was a good idea at all to leave Chicago magazine) and moved into an office and furnished it nicely–all at Jane’s expense.
We were both right. It was a terrible idea. In a very short time, he and Jane didn’t see eye to eye, and a few months into 1981, he quit. But he got to keep the the money because he shrewdly foresaw what could happen.
One day Eddie Vrodolyak called and asked if he could take over Paul’s vacated office.
The irony overtook us.
This was exactly what Paul couldn’t stand. Jane having anything to do with aldermen like Eddie Vrodolyak and Eddie Burke–and that’s what basically caused the rift. She got there fighting against them and he felt she should continue to fight against them.
He’d insisted on those contractual terms with her (having all the money in advance) because he knew he wouldn’t like being back if the Eddies were hanging out around her.
I seem to remember Paul advising Jane to make the move to Cabrini. However, at the moment it all happened, Paul and I were in the middle of a big breakup and we weren’t communicating–so I never had a conversation with him about it in real time.
I recently asked my step-daughter if she remembered if he thought of the idea. Who else? She couldn’t remember either. But she did say sneeringly, “I hope not.” Which surprised me. It was a headline grabbing moment. Yes, full of show. But it seemed to calm things down. It was bravado. Which was a good thing.
Shortly after Jane left Cabrini Green and I was off that beat, in the late Spring, of 1981, I began working nights. Paul and I were still in the middle of our several weeks-long break-up. And one Wednesday afternoon I decided to see the play, “Evita” at the Schubert Theater because the matinee was playing just a few blocks from the City New Bureau office where I picked up my assignments for the evening shift, before heading to police headquarters at 11th and State. And the timing was perfect.
For some reason, all during the play, I kept thinking about Paul. I missed him. And afterwards, I kept singing “Don’t cry for me, Argentina” in my head as I made my way through the Loop to check in before heading over to police headquarters. I kept hoping I’d see Paul on the street. The office Jane had him ensconced in was at Wells and Lake. City News was at Wells and Randolph.
As the music went through my head louder and louder, making me more and more emotional and drama-queen-like, I kept thinking about what a mistake this breakup was. And suddenly, there he stood. Right smack in front of me at Madison and LaSalle.
I stood there excited and stunned. And he said, “I saw a lot of you on TV on the morning news when you were out there every day talking to Jane. And I liked seeing you.”
I knew him so well and I knew as he said that, that he missed me, too. But neither of us admitted it. At that moment. Instead, we said goodbye. And we went in opposite directions. But I knew it wasn’t over.
When I got to 11th and State and entered the 7th floor press room–with some of the legends of the journalism world at the time, the now all deceased Henry Wood; and Phil Wattley, who had just finishing his day shift and was walking out the door, both from the Tribune; and Tom Seibel from the Suntimes, a little “schicker” as my grandmother used to say (drunk). The first of a night’s worth of cigarette smoke was creating the first cigarette haze of the night.
One of the many phones on my desk was ringing. It was the personal phone that was installed for us City News reporters to use for our personal conversations, if need be. All the other myriad phones on all of our desks had special purposes and were for various kinds of conversations: police business, the medical examiner cases, fires, certain kinds of crimes, phones that connected us to our respective news rooms and phones that related in some ways to sources for certain police stories. You had to use the right phone for the right story.
But the personal phone was ringing and I wondered if, and hoped and prayed that it was Paul. I picked it up and it was him. We called each other our pet names right off the bat. And our several weeks’ big breakup was over. And we were on again. And I was walking on air. And I think he was, too.
We moved in together a few months later, and married several months after that. And we had a daughter who is 38-years-old now. We divorced after 20 yeas and he died 11 years later, nine years ago.
A lot happened over the next 40 years, after we talked on that personal phone at Chicago’s police headquarters.
But to make a very long story short, the reason for that brief breakup that happened just before Jane moved to Cabrini-Green was that we were both married to other people, and things were getting complicated. We were both in marriages that no longer worked and we were very ready to fall in love with someone new. And we did in October of 1980. But no one was supposed to know.
As we talked that evening, I organized my paperwork for my shift, getting ready to go downstairs in a bit and talk to the big brass–the cops that were on that night–to see what was going on and what there was to write about. It was just about time to check the special typewriter downstairs that that detailed the murders in the City as they happened. A cop sat there recording the basic details–who, what, when and where–so the reporters could get to work. Doing their gruesome job.
I kept thinking of the murders being listed downstairs and kept saying I’d better go, but we kept talking. And then Henry Wood said, “Get off the phone, it’s time for us to eat dinner. I ordered the food. And it will be here in a minute.” We reporters took turns every night. And we always ate together in the newsroom.
Henry shouted again, “Get off that phone, it’s time to eat. The food is on its way up the elevator now.” One of his phones had rung from downstairs to make sure the delivery guy was for real and not sneaking into the hallowed halls of the coppers.
When I didn’t hang up immediately, Henry came over and grabbed the phone out of my hand and he said, “Mr. McGrath, we’re eating now.” And he hung up.
I was astounded. Completely stunned. “Henry,” I said, “how did you know I was talking to Paul McGrath? Nobody knows about him and me.”
“Everyone knows,” he scowled.
And that was that. The Evita song stopped playing in my head. We ate our dinner together. And I went down to the 6th floor to see what was new and what murders had been committed since my shift started.
And I wonder now, Memorial Day weekend of 2021, were there less murders that night than there would have been if Jane Byrne hadn’t lived for that brief period in the Spring of 1981 at Cabrini-Green?
But I didn’t wonder about it that night after Paul and I were back together. Even though the proof one way or the other would have been right before my eyes if I’d looked back a few weeks at the record that was right there for me to see.
But I’d had too much excitement for the day. The murder rate was the last thing on my mind. I just studied what murders were there and went back upstairs to make calls and write things up.
But I do wonder now, if Lori Lightfoot moves to Englewood, would the number of shootings and murders in Chicago go down?
It’s worth a try.