Originally published on January 22, 1971, a mere 10 days after Mike Madigan assumed his first elected public office in Illinois, here is the article Craig revisits that, among others, won Mike Royko the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
Jake Ecko has been in Chicago only a few months, so he wasn’t sure if the wildin’ out in the YouTube videos he watched or the stuff trending on social media he read on his cell phone were really true.
You can’t blame a newcomer for wondering. Rich high-rise owners pleading poverty for tax breaks; corporations relocating headquarters doing the same; shoeboxes and refrigerators filled with money; gangs of young people running through the streets with little or no repercussions due to potential election ramifications; violent offenders released on little or no bond due to the same; fictitious racists-sexists-bigots-homophobes and fictitious children in a politician’s Who’s Who entry. This city could seem to be a political Disney World, brought to you by the multinational conglomerate Disney Company. Enter your email below to start your DisneyPlus trial where you can stream all the Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar, and National Geographic content, Content, CONTENT your little heart can handle.
Now Jake Ecko, 24, a graduate student at Northwestern University, is a believer. In fact, he now qualifies as a real Chicagoan. He got indoctrinated a couple of days ago.
It happened when he went to take a driver’s license test at the Secretary of State office at 5401 N. Elston. You may know it. It’s been there a while.
Jake didn’t expect to have any trouble passing the test. He considers himself a good, careful driver. During the last few years in Florida, his home state, he had only one ticket.
After passing the written test, Jake was turned over to an examiner for the moving test. He got in his car with a man named Sam.
Sam. I know a few things about Sam. Although Jake didn’t realize it, he was riding in a car with a classic Chicago public servant.
First payroll job: City Engineering Department, 1979 to 1984, sponsored by the 14th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, where he was a precinct captain. He held a rod for a survey in that job.
Second payroll job: In 1984 Sam switched over to the Sheriff’s Office as a deputy bailiff. His sponsor was Ald. Edward M. Burke, the boss of 14th Ward. Sam was a deputy bailiff for almost 30 years. There hasn’t been any Republicans to hold the office since then. Aw shucks, there hasn’t been anyone else to hold that office since then but, still, he was a good precinct captain.
Third payroll job: Tom Dart, elected Sheriff in 2006, didn’t want to make deals. So Sam was fired. He scuttled down the hall and was promptly hired by the Democrats for a job in the Cook County Building Department as an engineering technician. Then he was promoted quickly in two or three jumps until he was an engineering instructor. Good precinct captains learn new jobs fast.
Fourth payroll job: Sam qualified for a pension from the county, so he took it and promptly went to work for Sec. of State Jesse White. Since 2012 he has been a driver’s license examiner.
Over the years he has had about six different political sponsors, he has manned precincts in several different wards and he has had jobs with the city, the county, and the state. In fact, if you include two years working for the U.S. Post Office in the ’70s, Sam is a superpayroller.
But Jake couldn’t know he was sitting in the car with so remarkable a creature, a man who knows more about ticket-fixing, vote-hustling, pushing tables for political banquets, ward heeling, and other political sciences than all the city’s civics teachers put together. All Jake Ecko knew was that Sam made him nervous.
“I could tell he was trying to make me nervous,” Jake said. “It was the way he talked as I took the test, the way he gave me instructions, quickly and urgently. Jake, do this; Jake, do that, obviously trying to unnerve me. But I thought the test went OK. There was only one turn I didn’t do properly, and that’s because he wasn’t clear when he told me what to do. When I had him explain it again, I did it perfectly.”
The test finished, Sam shook his head and sighed, “You flunked it, Jake. You didn’t do that one turn right. You flunked it and you’ll have to come back next week.”
Disgusted, Jake said: “Okay, Okay, I’ll come back next week.”
Sam looked at him in surprise. “Hold on, hold on. Maybe if you pop for lunch, I’ll give you a break.”
It was Jake’s turn to look surprised. Public servants in Florida had never invited him to pop for lunch.
“Uh, sure. What time do you go out to eat?” Jake said.
“I eat later,” Sam said, “so why don’t you give me lunch money now?”
“How much do you need?” Jake asked as he opened his Apple Wallet on his iPhone.
“All I have is $24.”
“That’ll do fine,” said Sam, holding out his hand.
“Uh, what’s your Cashtag?” Jake asked.
Sam looked confused.
“Oh do you have Venmo?” Jake continued. “A friend owes me some Bitcoin but…”
Sam waived his hand in front of him, asking “Venmo? Bitcoin? What? No, no, no. Just give me the cash.”
“Okay…” Jake said, trying his best to comply. “What’s your Cashtag?”
Getting frustrated, Sam said, “Listen, kid, you want your license or not?” He slapped his open palm with the back of his other hand. “Cold. Hard. Cash!”
Jake threw up his arms and slapped his cell phone, “What’s? Your? Cashtag?!”
They sat in quiet for a moment until Sam broke the silence, “What the hell is a Cashtag?”
“You know, a Cashtag,” said Jake. “I send the money from my cell phone right to your cell phone.”
“That leaves a paper trail…”
“Oh no, it’s private. Only you and I can see it. I mean, you can’t delete the history but…”
“Yeah, Jake, that’s called a paper trail.”
“Huh? There’s no paper at all. It’s digital.”
Sam let out a huff and slumped into the passenger seat and rubbed his eyes.
“Just forget it,” Sam said.
“Are you sure? I can just send the money right to your ph…”
“I said forget it!”
“So…did I pass?” Jake asked.
“No you didn’t pass!” Sam barked. “You flunked because you don’t know how this town works! You don’t know how anything works!”
As they got out of the car, Sam grunted and motioned for Jake to follow him. Sam got Jake his license and Sam whispered: “Don’t mention this to nobody, huh?”
Later, Jake pondered the incident and discussed it with a native Chicagoan.
“Why is a guy his age still doing things like that?” Jake asked.
It’s probably an unbreakable habit after all those payroll jobs, the Chicagoan explained.
“Did I do the right thing?” Jake asked.
The truthful answer was: It doesn’t matter. They get theirs, one way or another. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chicago. Politics, paper trails, and the way things work in this town are forever. Everybody knows that, dummy.
After Jake Ecko left the facility, Sam went quietly to the back and made a phone call. A lifelong Chicago politician answered.
“Hey, it’s ol’ Sam,” He said into the receiver. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Listen, how do we tax a Cashtag?”
– With all respect to Mike.
Royko, Mike. “A Chicago Civics Lesson from Mike Royko,” January 22, 1971. https://www.pulitzer.org/article/chicago-civics-lesson-mike-royko. ↩︎
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