Transcript

33:

A Night at the Wiener Circle
Transcript

Originally aired 08.23.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/33

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hi. It's Ira, recording this in 2006. This episode of our show, Episode 33, is one that actually never was broadcast nationally. We did a local broadcast of it in Chicago and always intended to go back to it and make it into a national version and never did. In fact, we don't even have a master copy of it, a digital recording of it. And what you're about to hear is actually from a cassette we have of the show, which is the only copy we can find. Anyway, here we go.

Act One.

Ira Glass

I don't remember when I first wandered into The Wieners Circle. I'm sure it was after midnight. I'm sure that, as always, the place was mobbed. I'm sure that, as always, people were screaming.

Customer 1

I need a veggie burger!

Customer 2

Lady? Lady!

Customer 3

Veggie burger, double cheeseburger and a fry.

Customer 4

Char burger!

Ira Glass

The front of the hot dog stand is filled with a swarm of people. When I first went, it was a weird mix of cops-- there was a lot of cops there-- drunk yuppie 20-somethings, working class people who work in the neighborhood. But what really got to me was the staff. There's one of these windows you can look through, they ask for your order through. And they're in a space so small you could not park a car back there.

And it's hot. You can tell it's hot. There are deep fryers and grills pouring off heat. There's hot grease everywhere. And they are constantly bumping into each other, getting into each other's way. And all of them, all of them are screaming nonstop. It's a kind of work environment that makes you wonder only one thing. Why don't these people want to kill each other?

Employee 1

I don't know. What does he got?

Customer 5

Stop being so miserable, you bastard.

Employee 1

I don't know. What in the [BLEEP] did you order? That's all I'm asking. $2.30. That's all. Very easy. Now we'll get along. Now you can talk to me. [BLEEP]

Ira Glass

But if you watch the workers at The Wieners Circle a little while more, you realize something else. They actually seem kind of happy. They're getting along. They kind of love each other. They joke around.

I thought, whoever manages this place really knows how to run a restaurant. I mean, they're taking a job that seems like one of the hardest, most grinding physically and psychologically, on your feet all day, yelling backwards and forwards, and somehow they have turned it into a job that the people there actually seem to kind of like.

Employee 2

I have more respect for this job than I can say almost any job that I've ever had. And I've had a lot of jobs.

Employee 3

You want to be here. It's like you're not working for money. You want to be here for real.

Ira Glass

Come on.

Employee 3

Yeah, I'm serious.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, a night at The Wieners Circle. I was there from 9:00 at night until dawn a couple Saturday nights ago. I saw hundreds of screaming drunks. A guy walked in who'd been carrying a statue of Zeus from one bar to the next. I saw a couple meet and flirt and get together. The staff cursed out the patrons. They cursed, sang them songs. Sometimes they sang them songs, mysteriously I should say, in Hebrew. What else happened? A man exposed himself to the women behind the counter. At their request. And at the end of the evening, everybody agreed, for them, it had been a quiet night.

Each week on our show, of course, we invite a variety of writers and performers. And this week, our contributors gave us stories about working in the lovely food service industry, about fast food places, about meat. Anyway, stay with us.

So let us go back now. I guess an elegant sound transition would've been a good idea there, but whatever. Let us go back now in time to a Saturday night. It is time to meet our cast of characters. There are Larry and Barry, the owners of The Wieners Circle. Larry's a 50-year-old man in Spandex pants when he works Saturday nights. He lives in the high-rise across the street from The Wieners Circle. That's on Clark Street, by the way, between Fullerton and Diversey. Larry lives on the lowest floor so he can see in.

Barry is 41. Shot up from 180 pounds to 300 since they bought The Wieners Circle, from eating the mistakes, he says. In the last two years, he's lost 100 of those pounds. And sitting on the picnic tables in front of the hot dog stand, they laugh about all the excuses that employees used to get out of work or show up late over the course of years. And they're talking about this when right at that moment, their night shift grill man walks up.

Barry Nemerow

Here comes one of our employees who was supposed to be in at 8:00. He's moseying in like nothing ever happened. You're about to hear one of the excuses. This is Tony. Tell him why you were supposed to be here at 8:00 and you're here at 10:00.

Tony

I'm sorry. But I got a flat tire, so--

Barry Nemerow

See? That was one of the excuses. That's an old one. Thank you anyways, Tony.

Larry Gold

He doesn't even own a car.

Barry Nemerow

Yeah, so that was--

Larry Gold

The bus.

Barry Nemerow

The bus had the flat tire, I think. As you can see, we're not uptight about it.

Ira Glass

These guys are like the Car Guys, you know? I don't know if you're getting much sense of this. When they first opened The Wieners Circle 15 years ago, this is the sort of thing, showing up late, that they would fire people for. But they realized over time that it takes so long to train somebody that it just was not worth it for them to hire somebody new who then would have exactly the same number of late days and excuses and all that. So they have mellowed. They have mellowed over the years. And they view that as basically their experience, they told me.

On the Saturday night shift, there's also Vicky who is married to Barry, but refuses to work the same shift as Barry does. There's Noni on fries, Tony on the grill, Patricia and Freddie at the counter with Coffee. Coffee is a person, by the way. Coffee is a person whose real name is Pat, but she insists on Coffee because, as she will be the first to tell you--

Coffee

Because I grind so fine.

Larry Gold

She's the backbone. Everybody asks for--

Barry Nemerow

You'll see her at her best, though, after midnight.

Coffee

After midnight, baby. I'm good after midnight.

Ira Glass

It is Coffee who sticks her long tongue out at men, on request and not. It is Coffee who can get the last word with any customer. It is Coffee, by the way, who accidentally cursed out Laurence Fishburne this week in the restaurant, not realizing who he was. The night I was there, a guy walked in at one point early in the night and says to Coffee and Patricia, who are standing behind the counter, "You work here?" And, of course, it's Coffee who says--

Customer 6

Do you work here?

Coffee

[BLEEP] no. We're just standing back here for decoration. What the [BLEEP] you thought?

Patricia

We just standing here because we like it.

Coffee

What the [BLEEP] are you having?

Ira Glass

The guy sputters. Newcomers to The Wieners Circle late at night usually are not prepared for what they get. Regulars, on the other hand, come in all night and try to get the last word on Coffee and on everybody else. But especially on Coffee. Coffee's like-- you know those old Westerns where there's the gunslinger who's the top gun? That's Coffee. And that's the problem with being the top gun, if you remember your John Wayne movies. That's the problem with being the top gun. There's always somebody who thinks he's just a little quicker.

Coffee

Being top gun. And that's exactly what it is, being top gun. If they can score, if they can score on me, then that's the whole thing. I mean, I feel like when I'll be here, I'm as famous as Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman. Don't [BLEEP] with her! Don't [BLEEP] with her. [BLEEP] you, midget.

Ira Glass

I have so much charming tape of them yelling at each other, like hours and hours of it. Coffee has four kids. The older ones have seen her cursing at The Wieners Circle and were shocked at first, she says. But then they understood that's just how she is at work. And she does have another job, she told me.

Coffee

I teach preschoolers, believe it or not.

Ira Glass

Over the course of a Saturday night these days, The Weiners Circle is mostly filled with yuppies, yuppie 20-somethings, seriously drunk. It is not an attractive sight. The women behind the counter call each other and themselves "bitch" mostly, as in--

Coffee

Tell the black bitch as many times as she needs to know.

Ira Glass

There are not many settings in our mostly segregated city of Chicago where you can see a room of mostly white jock-like boys screaming insults, yelling bitch at women, sometimes actually throwing money, literally throwing dollar bills at a group of mostly non-white women and men. Coming to The Wieners Circle drunk, they have license to talk and act like they talk and act nowhere else.

But when I ask Coffee about it, she says that she doesn't see any big racial edge to what goes on at her job. She likes most of her customers. She truly likes them. And she says they don't go over the line. She tells me this story about a white South African who came in and misinterpreted the license that was happening inside The Wieners Circle.

Coffee

And he said to me, he said, "You black ass nigger. You don't talk like that to me. Do you know who I am?" And at first, when he first said it, OK, I was laughing it off. Because I always laugh it off. Like, if somebody say, "Hey, you black bitch," I say, "Thank you." Or "You a dirty--" I say, "Thank you." So I thought he was playing at first, until he said something that one of the customers knew that he was actually being prejudiced about. And what happened was two of the other white guys that usually come in jumped onto him and started to fight him.

Ira Glass

When they take their breaks, The Wieners Circle staff seem to actually like each other. At one point, I was talking to Vicky and Coffee. And as Coffee was talking, Vicky gently reached over and wiped some mustard off of Coffee's cheek. Friday and Saturday nights from midnight until 4:00, working The Wieners Circle has the intensity of working in an emergency room. Except, of course, it's about hot dogs. And The Wieners Circle staff has bonded the way that emergency room staffs bond. And at dawn, after screaming at each other all night long, I mean, it sounds really corny to say it, but they are really affectionate with each other. They have no anger left over.

If you ask the customers why they come here, most of them say it is the food and the employees. Or as one man put it, very concisely I thought, "It's dinner and a show." And some of the staff view it as a show also. And they say that if they weren't putting on a show, this would just be another food service job. Freddy, for example, said that he has worked the days at The Wieners Circle. And during the day, there's none of this acting up. There's none of the screaming. It is a normal hot dog stand that you can take your kids to. And Freddy said it's hard to bear. The hours drag by. It is not much fun at all.

Freddy

It's like, you'll say, please, thank you, have a nice day, and all that. And during the night, it's a bunch of drunks. And it's like playing all night, playing all night.

Ira Glass

And so if you couldn't scream, it would just be another job.

Freddy

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

Now, I have something to confess to you, my beloved radio listeners. Though I have really amazing tape of other things which happened that night at The Wieners Circle, tape of Vicky and Patricia and Larry and the staff. And then some of the customers who really had some stories to tell, I have to say. Including-- this is a hot dog stand, oddly, haunted by David Schwimmer, for reasons I can't even begin to imagine.

There's also just stuff which happened, and without going into details, I will just say that those parts of the story did not get completed for tonight's show but will be completed, not for this coming Saturday, when we're talking about the Democrats, but the Saturday after that. You can hear this and more, more, more, a much more vivid little story. So listen to our little show for that, OK? Because there's a lot more to say about The Wieners Circle than I'm saying right now. And I want to share it with you.

[MUSIC - "HOT DOG" BY CHRIS POWELL]

Act Two. The Customer.

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Customer. Well, of course, the relationship between staff and customers at The Wieners Circle is not your typical relationship between restaurant staff and restaurant worker. And for a more typical story, we turn to Beau O'Reilly, who not only is a playwright and a frequent contributor to our show, but he actually works at a restaurant, has worked at many restaurants, and has this story of a possibly recognizable restaurant in our possibly recognizable Chicagoland area.

Beau O'reilly

In our restaurant, restaurant workers give out new names to favorite customers or-- and this is a much bigger category-- favorite customers to hate and be bugged by. And the names usually come from restaurant habits-- 5:00 Window Seat Lady, Mr. Saturday Night, Two Ashtray Al-- or more potently and likely to stick forever, favorite food orders. The Scone Man always has one, a scone, and it's always well done. He's a favorite with a spot on the restaurant worker's heart because of his consistency. The Is There Wheat In This Lady who always brings a shudder of annoyance so deep that the restaurant worker feels he must be suffering a stroke or a brain aneurysm.

"Is there wheat in this? What about the soup? Is there wheat in it? The lasagna, is there wheat in it? The bread, is there wheat it it? I can't have wheat. Can I have half a bowl? Not the medium bowl, a tiny bowl. Can I have it to go? I can't eat it here. Can you double wrap it? Can you heat it on the stove? I can't have it microwaved. I can't have microwaves. Can I have some water while I wait? Is there wheat in this water?" The restaurant worker has been known to lock the door when he sees the Is There Wheat In This Lady coming.

The Mustard Man is more deserving of pity, and the restaurant worker is aware of this. The Mustard Man is a limo driver who has gone legally blind, and he's probably harmless when he's not behind the wheel. He's pursuing a new line of work now, but like a middle-aged fat man pursuing a spot on the Olympic decathlon team, a new line of work may be outside his reach. The Mustard Man studies podiatry at the foot school across the street from where the restaurant worker works. The Mustard Man is a near member of that school's graduating class for the seventh time.

Before The Mustard Man became The Mustard Man, he was that guy from the school who offers to rub your feet, especially if your feet were lovely and your gams were shapely. He would offer to work on your foot without batting an eye, as if he were asking you to pass the ketchup. And his food orders were almost normal back then. Almost normal, but broken up and oddly shaped. Soup, soup must be served first, but soup always served cold until the restaurant worker anticipated it being served that way, and then he, The Mustard Man, would send it back with the instructions to nuke it until boiling. And when that soup was bubbling like a lava flow out of Mount Vesuvius, The Mustard Man would dump ice into it just to cool it back down.

Desserts were worried over with hopes that the dessert at least would be included for free, forks exchanged randomly for extra spoons, knives sent back to the dishwasher, extra napkins, extra bread, extra, extra, extra. And every little variation of the dinner order was announced with an increased urgency that pretended towards the matter of fact. The Mustard Man's ordering technique seemed designed to ask the restaurant worker to pay attention to him as many times as possible. And the longer The Mustard Man came to the restaurant, gradually he increased his visits from once a week to three or four times a week.

The more the restaurant worker's trips to The Mustard Man's tables had to be increased, the restaurant worker took on a permanent look of vexation and rage that only The Mustard Man seemed not to notice. Other customers, they withered from that look. Their bold orders for whole meals were reduced to weak pleas for cups of tea and mumbled requests to use the phone. The idea of putting even one more straw on this restaurant worker's back by ordering real food was too much for these sensitive souls.

But not The Mustard Man. The Mustard Man continued his barrage. More water, warm not hot. Fresh oregano. Mint toothpicks. Fresh bowls. As the weeks went on, The Mustard Man seemed to settle in, and he began to feel at home. He started table hopping. And usually, the other tables, they were filled with other near-graduates of the podiatry school, most of whom learned the mysteries of the human foot in a short one or two years.

And in our restaurant, The Mustard Man's table hopping, that was not acceptable. The students would cringe with disapproval as he approached them, declaiming the science of feet in a loud voice and manically grabbing at any unprotected Birkenstocks in a compulsive need to work on your foot, work on your foot. But The Mustard Man was crafty. He would rotate his table hopping so no one student group had too much cause to complain.

The restaurant worker's annoyance was growing. Indeed, it had passed rage now, and it had moved into a gibbering, idiot hatred that worked on his brain. That's the thing about restaurants, working in restaurants. The workers hate the customers. It's an unnatural relationship. You're there to serve them. Why should you serve them?

Until one day, The Mustard Man met the restaurant worker at the door as the restaurant worker was opening our restaurant for the evening. And he seemed particularly happy, The Mustard Man, reciting the entire menu aloud as the restaurant worker busied himself making coffee in a feeble attempt to ignore The Mustard Man.

The door opens, and in walks a potential performer. Now, his voice is just quivering with excitement at the possibility of using the place for avant garde karaoke or contact wild turkey improvisation parties, something. His eyes speak of wild parties, wild turkey and more. His voice gets loud and rapid firing questions. And the restaurant worker puts him off, insisting on an appointment at a later date, a demo tape, a blueprint proposal, at another time. Right now, the restaurant worker, he's running a pot of coffee. And that coffee requires a lot of attention.

And The Mustard Man, he jumps up to help. He's taking the potential performer on a tour of the restaurant worker's restaurant, our restaurant. The lovely stage and the handsome tablecloths and the cheerful crockery. And the two of them are constructing a loud Tower of Babel that has the restaurant worker seething now. And as The Mustard Man finally escorts the potential performer out the door, shouting "We'll get back to you with an offer."

"An offer of what?" fumes the restaurant worker.

The Mustard Man gives the potential performer one last longing look, glancing down at the potential performer's wingtips and wondering about the feet that they might hold. And then the restaurant worker lets him have it. Inappropriate, spew. Boundary issues, spew. Spew, spew. Attention monger, spew. Self-involved juvenile, spew, spew. Inappropriate, inappropriate, inappropriate behavior, spew! The restaurant worker, expanding and puffed-up like a porcupine on defense. And The Mustard Man, shrinking and inappropriate now, is backing out the door.

The Mustard Man didn't stop coming to our restaurant. He still appeared regularly. But now he never sat, he never table-hopped, ordering only bread gobbed with mustard to go. He became The Mustard Man. "Bread with mustard to go, please," in a clear but subdued voice.

And the restaurant worker never spoke personally to him again. Things were ice between them, professional, appropriate. And sometimes The Mustard Man wouldn't even come in. The restaurant worker would look up from strangling a fruit salad or burning a bagel to death and see The Mustard Man, his face pressed against the restaurant window like the restaurant was a new pair of Converse high-tops and the restaurant worker a wondrous pair of feet The Mustard Man would love to get his hands on. And the restaurant worker thought The Mustard Man looked particularly bad with his face pressed against the window like that.

Ira Glass

Beau O'Reilly's running the Rhino Fest and he works at The Lunar Cabaret restaurant.

Coming up on our program-- coming up, what is coming up? Coming up, hot dogs as metaphor for all politics in the city of Chicago and ever so much more as our little food program continues.

Act Three. A Parable of Politics.

Ira Glass

Act Three, A Parable of Politics. Well, I'm joined now in the studio by one of the public radio reporters here in Chicago, Shirley Jahad. Welcome to our studio.

Shirley Jahad

Hi there, Ira.

Ira Glass

And Shirley, you've agreed to do a little assignment for us, because hot dogs in Chicago are not just food. They are a lens through which we can see the workings of our great city. And I know that you have a story here of a company that did everything it was supposed to, here in the city that works, to grease the skids and see that things went well, and ran into some trouble and finally-- well, we'll say whether they prevailed or not as the story proceeds. But why don't you explain who this company is?

Shirley Jahad

Well, that's right, Ira. We're talking about Chicago's own Vienna Beef Hot Dog. This is a very established company in the city, been here for more than 100 years. And like you said, they've done everything right. They employ 500 people in the city, they stayed in town when other people went to the suburbs, the head of the company, Jim Bodman, is a good corporate citizen, a contributor to all the right campaigns, including Mayor Daley's campaign, Mayor Richard Daley's campaign. He gives the maximum amount he can.

Whenever City Hall calls, he says, he responds as much as he can. He sends hot dogs to the parks for kids. He's even contributing hot dogs to the big media party for journalists and delegates coming to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And every year, he contributes to the city's big summer party, the city's best summer festival, The Taste of Chicago. The city tries to draw in area residents and tourists from all around using this festival.

Jim Bodman

And they ask us for money to help them do that. And we give them money. And they promise us that all the food that is served there will be our food, and they put our name up. It's a classic example of you scratch my back and I'll scratch your back. Pretty simple, and it works very well.

Ira Glass

So the guy's playing by the rules.

Shirley Jahad

Everything's going just as it's supposed to.

Ira Glass

And now at this point, I can pick up the story a little bit. Because about a year ago, I just happened to be sitting in Jim Bodman's office at the Vienna Beef Sausage Company for reasons too complicated to go into here. And I'm sitting there and the phone rings, and it's somebody from the mayor's office. And they want 200 hot dogs for some event in some park for some kids. And Bodman says, "Sure, sure, sure." And then his voice goes kind of low. And he says, "Listen to me. Can you give me any help on this Navy Pier thing? They're killing me on this Navy Pier thing. And I don't understand it. I don't understand why we can't get our dogs out onto Navy Pier."

Shirley Jahad

Ira, take us to Navy Pier. Hit that sound.

Ira Glass

All right. Let's hit the sound through the magic of radio.

[PIER AMBIENCE]

That was such a public radio moment, wasn't it?

Shirley Jahad

Here we are on Navy Pier, Ira. It's a wonderful place for summer fun. Carousels, Ferris wheels--

Ira Glass

Watch out for that kid with that balloon, Shirley. [LAUGHTER] It's so realistic.

Shirley Jahad

There's a lot of shops, a lot of food, you know, the water and the boats and whatnot. It's called the jewel of Chicago's lakefront. It's this high-traffic showcase area.

Ira Glass

Tourists.

Shirley Jahad

A lot of tourists, a lot of folks from the suburbs, a lot of kids--

Ira Glass

A lot of kids.

Shirley Jahad

--and grown ups. It cost $100 million of taxpayer money, bond money, to refurbish Navy Pier. And it was all carefully planned which businesses were going to go where.

Ira Glass

Now, Bodman told me that he couldn't get the dog out on Navy Pier. Did he bid on the contract?

Shirley Jahad

Bodman bid $0.45 lower per pound for his dogs to be on Navy Pier, and he still didn't get the contract.

Ira Glass

That seems to me to be not the way things are done.

Shirley Jahad

It's not the way things should have been done--

Ira Glass

Here in Chicago.

Shirley Jahad

--in Chicago.

Jim Bodman

Somehow this New York hot dog migrated into our backyard. And it didn't happen by random occurrence. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody. And they said, let's get Charlie's Hot Dogs into Navy Pier and we'll really have a big time with it because it's a very public place. No, it wasn't random. Something happened. Somebody said something to someone, and that's the way the world works.

Ira Glass

And that's the way our city works. The fix was in.

Shirley Jahad

Well, yeah. He doesn't quite say the fix was in. He just sort of leaves it at that. I guess it's part of the Chicago code of honor in politics. You don't know nobody, nobody [? sins. ?] So he wasn't going to exactly tell me who that somebody was who knew somebody.

Ira Glass

He wouldn't tell you? Ah. He would not tell you?

Shirley Jahad

He would not say.

Shirley Jahad

Who was that, do you know?

Jim Bodman

No.

Shirley Jahad

Was it somebody who worked for the Pier?

Jim Bodman

And if I knew, I wouldn't tell you.

Shirley Jahad

Was it someone who worked for the Pier?

Jim Bodman

I might be a hot dog salesman, but I'm not stupid.

[LAUGHTER]

Shirley Jahad

Was it, like-- do you think--

Jim Bodman

I'm not going to tell you. Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.

Shirley Jahad

Was it, was it, like--

Jim Bodman

I don't know. I'm not going to tell you.

Ira Glass

See, there is a tactic you don't see many big corporate executives use with reporters, is just to mock you in a falsetto.

Shirley Jahad

That's true, Ira. He was a tough one to crack. You know what I'm saying? He wouldn't come forward and tell me the name.

Ira Glass

Well, that's our system. That's our system here in Chicago. So where did you go?

Shirley Jahad

So of course we had to take it to City Hall. Bodman wasn't talking, so we had to go to our City Hall sources. And of course, they did talk, albeit in a whisper. I mean, they weren't free to say everything openly. They weren't talking on tape, or anything. But off tape, my City Hall sources did talk to me about this whole thing with the hot dogs on the Pier and how it really went down. How come the Chicago company didn't get their dogs on the Pier?

Ira Glass

Now, did they give you a name of somebody who was the person who was keeping us off the Pier, keeping our homegrown dogs off the Pier? Did they give you a name?

Shirley Jahad

We don't have a name.

Ira Glass

We don't have a name.

Shirley Jahad

We still don't have a name.

Ira Glass

All right. Well, what do we have?

Shirley Jahad

But we do have some very important information. We do have confirmation, as we say in the business. We have confirmation. Because the City Hall source has confirmed to me that, yeah, this is how Chicago works. It's been this way for years and years and years, and it's always going to be this way, he says. It's not necessarily the best way, but it is the way it is. And he said to me, quote, "The fix was in."

Ira Glass

I would say, actually, given the fact that Bodman bid $0.45 less a pound and didn't get the contract, I'd say that I would believe that.

Shirley Jahad

You would believe that. OK, well, we have confirmation. "The fix was in," he says. And then he says, "People need to be taken care of." These are his words, not mine. Then he paused, though. This was the interesting part. He takes a pause. "People need to be taken care of," he says, and he pauses. And he says, "And that's not necessarily a corrupt thing."

LAUGHTER]

That's how it is in Chicago, you know?

Ira Glass

Well, you know. The streets are paved. The garbage is picked up. That's a good thing.

Shirley Jahad

That's right.

Ira Glass

So people need to be taken care of.

Shirley Jahad

That's right. And--

Ira Glass

Then Bodman is--

Shirley Jahad

--Bodman is absolutely--

Ira Glass

He's one of those people.

Shirley Jahad

He's one of those people. At this point, he really feels like he needs to be taken care of.

Ira Glass

Contributor to the mayor.

Shirley Jahad

He feels like he's been left hung out to dry after he did everything right. He gives to the mayor's campaign. He comes whenever he's called at City Hall, and whatnot.

Ira Glass

So next is?

Shirley Jahad

So of course, what's next in politics?

Ira Glass

A meeting.

Shirley Jahad

Absolutely. They called a meeting. And all the players got together. And so this is one of those quintessential Chicago-style political meetings. You've all heard about them, maybe imagined them, high-powered, back room, smoke-filled--

Ira Glass

I wish I could only see--

Shirley Jahad

--cigars.

Ira Glass

--the mayor's schedule for that day. "11:00 to 11:30, hot dog meeting." No detail too small. So what do we know about who was at this meeting?

Shirley Jahad

Well, you know, we have conflicting information on exactly who was at the meeting. My City Hall source tells me the mayor was, in fact, at the meeting, but of course--

This all-important, high-powered hot dog meeting, how could he miss it? But Bodman insists, no, the mayor wasn't there. He has more important things to do than deal with these "weenie problems." Those are Bodman's words, again, not mine. But who was there? So who was there? All these officials from Navy Pier, the governing body of Navy Pier.

Ira Glass

That's a state agency, the Metropolitan Pier and Convention Authority, or some name like that. OK, a state agency. So we've got people from a state agency, we've got the mayor.

Shirley Jahad

And assistants to the mayor and all different kinds of liaisons from the mayor's office. And we have Bodman and his people. And we have some people from the catering company that deals with the contracts--

Ira Glass

At the pier, right?

Shirley Jahad

--on Navy Pier. So like we say, it's one of those, you know--

Ira Glass

And you picture this kind of thing, and you picture sort of a very high-powered glamorous sort of thing.

Shirley Jahad

Let's hear how Bodman tells it.

Jim Bodman

It was interesting. There were about 15 people in the room. It was like a school board meeting. You know, everybody likes to hear themselves talk.

Ira Glass

I'm so glad I was not there.

Shirley Jahad

It may have not been that exciting.

Ira Glass

As somebody who has been to many school board meetings, I just want to say. OK, so did he get satisfaction?

Shirley Jahad

In the end, Bodman says justice was served. And now you can, dear listener, get your Vienna Beef dog on Navy Pier if you come to Chicago.

Ira Glass

Justice was served on a sesame seed bun.

Shirley Jahad

Poppy seed bun, my dear.

Ira Glass

Poppy seed bun, excuse me.

Shirley Jahad

With hot peppers, thank you.

Ira Glass

All right. So justice was served, and you can get your dog on Navy Pier now.

Shirley Jahad

You can get your dog out on Navy Pier. That's our city. It's the city that works. It's a place where politics runs deep thick throughout everything. It's in the air. You can't even see it.

Ira Glass

Even hot dogs, you've got to take it to the fifth floor.

Shirley Jahad

You've got to take it to the mayor's office, that's right.

Ira Glass

That's what we're talking about.

Shirley Jahad

And Bodman says this is just business.

Ira Glass

It's not politics. Just business.

Shirley Jahad

It's not politics.

Jim Bodman

The truth of the matter is that this is just a business deal. They were using hot dogs, and we didn't like the fact that they came from a competitor, and that's how our economic system works. You get in there and you fight and you ask and you beg and you do whatever you can do that's legal and moral. And you try to get the business. And that's what the other people are trying to do also.

Did we use the political people to help us in that fight? You bet we did. We called the mayor. I would have called Bill Clinton had he answered the telephone. Because if you've got some competitive blood flowing in your veins, that's what you do. We didn't need Bill. We needed Rich. And Rich is--

Ira Glass

Rich, I should say for our listeners at home, Rich, of course, Rich Daley, our mayor.

Jim Bodman

--the guy who helped us. We used them. We don't use them very often, but this is one time that we did use them. But it was not political influence as much as it was just seeking help from people who we've helped before.

Ira Glass

I just want to stop the tape right there. If that is not political influence, what is politics if it is not seeking help from people who you have helped before?

Shirley Jahad

Sounds kind of political.

Ira Glass

All right. But not to say there's anything wrong with that. Not to say there's anything wrong with that.

Shirley Jahad

It's all legal.

Ira Glass

It's legal.

Shirley Jahad

Yeah. Above board.

Ira Glass

All above board. Well, there's our city right there. Shirley Jahad, thank you for helping us with this little parable of the city that works and exactly how it works and how it extends even down to the lowliest bun.

Shirley Jahad

Thank you, Ira.

Ira Glass

Thank you. You know, I should also say thanks to Dick Bodman who really had no good reason to talk to us. That is a sign of a decent person. And he's actually a listener to our radio station. It is a generous act, and we appreciate that.

Act Four. Fast Food Heart.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Fast Food Heart. One of the things about fast food is, like everything else in our in our culture, everything that's made to be throw-away, everything that's made to be disposable, like bad TV shows, everything like that, sooner or later we become so fond of it and it becomes a deep part of our experience. And then it becomes basically who we are.

That's the most philosophical thing I'm going to say on this show for the next year. Let me just say that right now. Anyway, so with that in mind, we have a story here by Cassandra Smith about the meaning of one particular fast food and fast food establishment.

Cassandra Smith

On the 18th day in Japan, I finally broke down. Nearly three weeks and I had refused all Western food. Not a cup of coffee or a glass of milk. I refused beef, white bread. I'd even given up chewing gum.

My hostess was worried. "Breakfast American style?" she asked every evening after my dinner of raw fish or shrimp. She had heard me gagging and crying late at night. "No," I answered. I was determined to live and eat Japanese style. Seafood, soy sauce, and rice. Even the candy is made out of rice. On the 18th day, I cracked.

On a back street in Kyoto, the smell of hot fried chicken sliced through the air. It was a siren song, a pied piper that led me zombie-like through the narrow streets. I followed the thick, greasy fragrance and found, jammed between the noodle shops and sushi bars, a safe haven. Here on a main street in Kyoto, Japan, next door to a kimono boutique, stood an outpost of civilization, a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The aroma of 11 herbs and spices pushed out into the evening air, past geishas on their way to work in full regalia and career girls rushing home with takeout sushi.

Standing at the door was a five-foot statue of the Colonel. He was dressed all in white and holding a gold-tipped cane. His eyes were slanted and his cheeks round and red like Santa, but it was him, the Colonel, with his right hand raised in a sign of peace. I rushed inside. Once in, I felt a flood of relief. The familiar vinyl booths, the Colonel's smiling face over the menu, which even though it was in Japanese, I instantly understood. Breast and wing, slaw and biscuit. The cardboard box popped open like a magic jewel case. I sank my teeth into a greasy breast and heaved a sigh filled with tears.

When I finally looked up, I realized the restaurant was jam-packed with Japanese eating chicken and biscuits. In the bright fluorescent light, they sucked bones and licked their fingers with gusto. The excitement was unbelievable. And when I translated the cost of a snack box from yen to dollars, I realized that at these prices, this was a serious night out on the town.

Suddenly, the taste of the chicken went sour in my mouth. The Japanese believe in the Colonel. They think he invented this recipe. I was numb with fury. "This is mine. Mine," I wanted to scream. Black slaves invented this recipe. You think that old white man stood over a wood stove frying chicken? I looked from face to face, the voice screaming inside of my brain. I wanted their gratitude. I wanted credit for their greasy smiles. "Look at me," I wanted to shout. "I'm the 11 herbs and spices. I'm the secret recipe." All around, people were laughing and smacking and licking their fingers. And in the dark of the Kyoto night, the bright white statue of the Colonel shone like a beacon.

Then I realized something else. This Colonel had destroyed my world and everything in it. Now, follow me here. This is what I'm trying to say. I'm saying that to understand the history of the last 40 years, you have to understand the history of chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken has wiped out a way of life, destroyed a culture. It used to be that every black woman in America had her own secret recipe. But nobody fries chicken anymore, not when they can pick up a bucket for eight.

And on top of that, chicken dinners were the foundation of an underground economy. Need a few extra dollars? Sell dinners. We've experienced a hostile takeover of enormous proportions. Church women who cleaned offices all night and sold dinners all day, they fed us and left our churches mortgage-free. We've forgotten our recipes. And a few more years of the Colonel, and I'm afraid we might not remember anything.

Ira Glass

Cassandra Smith.

Act 5.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Know Your Meat. This is a poem by Lisa Buscani.

Lisa Buscani

I remember red meat. In red meat's time, our lives were marbled with victory. Fat meant winning, and we had room for bounce. The flesh of our fingers folded over our sacred rings, burying our eyes and doubling our smiles. In red meat's time, we slapped it down to fry pans, to roasters, to broilers, through grinders.

Skip the lying, seeping, surface. That's life. That's death. That's the way it is. That's the way it's always been. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And I'll give you something to cry about.

The men then were men, and the women were bubbly. Fuzzy, bunny, bubbly. Impossibly singed, chiffon, giggling, bubbly. Thigh-high, long-line, nylon, fly-me-to-Rio bubbly. Excuse us while we powder our nose. [GASP]

And in the under and the back, deals were made featuring details you shouldn't know about sealed with the tight fiber of rare, red meat chased with hard, gold liquor, unnatural laughter, and prayer. And the men shifted in the overstuffed chairs, fearing and loving their birthrights as manly steaks, and godly brats snuggled under intestinal tissue for a long, long nap.

It was science, blasted bodies of knowledge that ended it. Showing us how our hearts stopped too soon, our colons packed rock-solid with the remnants of grand tours, our veins viscous with bad fats. Educations, cries, rattle, and gnash for alternatives, so we searched for other stuffs to tear between our teeth.

Enter the fruits of the sea. The albacores, prawn, cods, swordfish, and soles that lay light and oily and sour on our plate. In seafood's time, we tread lightly. You could almost hear the wind chimes when we walked. The world was beige, the wood was blond, and California had its airy tentacles in everything. We melted down to skeletal angles, laid artificial blends on our backs, and stalked the mandatory party.

In seafood's time, men were men and the women were sullen. Straight-haired and bare-faced, they grew tired of waiting for their share of the shrimp. Any male smile was sniffed and suspected of sexism. Sisters had been fooled before. Women pulled back into books and behind low-level desks, waiting for the moment when they would emerge equal, like the butterfly folding back to cocoon in search of a greater wing. Some men, shaken by the loss of their girls, grew sideburns and frantically ran to make room. Others rumbled away disgruntled, slamming their spiked tails against a volatile ground in the hope that something would come from the backlash.

The edge bled into gray as we abandoned right or wrong in Zen cowardice. The sex was shudder and exercise. Looking hard to the eye was far too messy and heavy for the time. And soon, we discovered that seafood stuck more to its shells than to our ribs, and its bones were always a problem. It was never cheap in a land-locked region and took too long to cook, thrashing its death throes in mad, cruel water.

So we began again, looking for the food that wouldn't scar us. And along came poultry. Light and filling, miraculously versatile. After all, didn't everything else aspire to taste like it? Poultry gave itself up to us selflessly, blending perfectly in all our dishes. In life, these beaks were mean, jutting little monsters. But in death, nude and hanging from its ankles, poultry was considerate enough to see that our blood kept pumping unobstructed.

In poultry's time, we filled back to livable weights, but not grossly so. And with its fuel, we ran hard at what we wanted. The world was-- the world was-- well, we can't remember what the world looked like. We never stopped long enough for it to focus from its blur.

In poultry's time, the men were men and the women were men. Check the musculature. See the stamina. We watched as women tore up stomach lining with the best of them. Weren't their heads for fourth quarter figures and baby-making afterthoughts? Wasn't their laughter the most false silk, much like the scarves they wore as their last shred of sex? Kiss the kids and pass the paprikash, there was work to be done.

And the men, feeling rushed and outrun, slipped into hard, sleek, Italian numbers, legions of bloodless Pat Rileys. They began to look downward for their models, not bothering to play by rules they kept changing. I'll bet you a Boesky and raise you two Trumps.

In poultry's time, pork made a stab at such a claim, stamping its feet like a naggy little brother. "I'm white meat. Put me in, coach." But we would not be swayed. In the name of an ovine utopia, it was poultry that we loved. Until we found out how it was cleaned. Or rather, how it wasn't cleaned. Salmonella stories and other beastly bacteria. Jim Fixx dropped like a fly in mid-jog. Nothing was ever what it seemed. And all promises lay shattered at the pedestal's base.

Now we wander listlessly from food to food. Nothing fills us like we once knew. Pasta is a sometime friend that bores us with its quantity. And we can never seem to bring the vegetable over from the side dish. Our options are melting like spring ice, and we are slipping to old-world poverties.

Men and women are coming down slowly from their separate mountains. "Sorry. Really, sorry for everything. I mean it." They are remembering the goodness in each other's faces, benevolent skin and bone. There is so much less static and distraction, and we have time now. Can't we try again? And if you listen closely, you can hear the reticent, reformed tapping of red meat at our survival's door.

"Hi. I was in the neighborhood. Don't the words 'lean' and 'free range' mean anything to anyone? Give me another chance. Can't you?"

[MUSIC - "BUTCHER PETE" BY ROY BROWN]

Ira Glass

Lisa Buscani, a Chicago poet who now lives in Boston. Man, that song is nasty.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program produced today by Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike, Peter Clowney and myself. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin. I'm just switching music here.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you would like a copy of this program, it's only $10. Call us at WBEZ to order that. 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. All of the shows we do are available on cassette. Our email address, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass--

Hi. Me again. 2006. That's pretty much all we have of that show. I hope you enjoyed it.