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Bughouse Square Revisited



The precision-flying Blue Angels had finished their Air Force recruiting pitch. Hundreds of thousands of thrill seekers from the annual Air and Water Show were heading everywhere but east. And in a quiet, wooded enclave, the near north side's Bughouse Square, were gathered a much smaller group--probably one ten-thousandth of the lakefront crowd. Seated on folding wooden chairs facing a bunting-draped podium, they had collected in the sweltering heat, not to see a plane fly upside down, but to hear a debate, an argument over parental leave from the workplace and another on AIDS-contact tracing. Without a Harrier jet or a single commercial. Just a few axes to grind.

Sponsored by the Newberry Library, with help from the Chicago Bar Association, this second annual debate on constitutional issues (last year's concerned pornography and church-state separation) is an attempt to bring back for just two hours the glory days of what respectable people called "that lunatic asylum," Bughouse Square, former cow path, debate forum, hangout for prostitutes, chess sanctum--and now, for only one day a year, once again a turbulent marketplace for ideas.

It's a sign of the times that today you have to organize a debate in Bughouse Square (its more genteel moniker is Washington Square Park) and hire a calliope to draw a crowd. From the teens to the 50s (when television started making politics a spectator sport), a debate in the public square that Orasmus Bushnell dedicated in 1842 to the people of Chicago was as novel as grass in parks. Very free, forensic speech raged from soapboxes that exalted such Demosthenic types as the "whorehouse physician" and "clap doctor" Ben Reitman and Frank Midney, the "Mayor of Bughouse Square," in addition to hobo scholars, artist radicals, pulpit-pounding atheists, religious health nuts, eccentric eccentrics, and their overachieving hecklers ("If brains was bedbug juice, you couldn't drown a nit" was a Midney favorite).

On every subject--oral sex, food fads, the flat-world theory, Freud, the earth as hollow sphere, even politics--some 40 forums would continue from 10 AM to midnight. Among other attractions, a Norwegian tool and die maker named Triphammer Johnson could recite entire plays by Ibsen and Strindberg and lecture for three weeks at a time on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. One of Saul Bellow's first efforts, the 1949 "A Sermon by Doctor Pep," was the future Nobel laureate's hymn to the stump speakers he loved to hear.

Many of the 150 or more citizens assembled in Chicago's Hyde Park Corner this Saturday--an older crowd than last year's--had themselves witnessed the days when great orators stalked the earth. Arnie Buehler, 60, fondly recalled free-love advocate "One-Arm Charly," who could argue every way but loose. (Charly's memory was also honored by a sign carried this afternoon by newly appointed Associate Judge Alan Greinman.)

"There was a lady evangelist," Buehler recollected, "called Sister Edwards who tried to convert people; she claimed she'd ascended into heaven and come back. She'd go to one corner where the teenagers would bug her mercilessly. I remember 'Whiskey Jimmy' Rohan, who claimed he hadn't worked for 40 years. He said he was never happier than during the Great Depression where, if he ever got temporarily insane and wanted to find a job, he knew there wouldn't be any." As much as for the debate itself, Buehler had come out to see old friends, particularly the stentorian socialist Slim Brundage (now 84 and living in Mexico).

Slim wasn't there but former alderman and City Council parliamentarian Leon Despres was--as moderator (Despres called the alarm clock that timed the speakers his own "Mayor Daley"). It was suddenly 1987 again, and Despres, extolling Bughouse's heritage, regretted that today we have places of protest like the Daley Plaza but precious few public forums; television has left its mark everywhere, and placards carry more impact than speeches.

"If Bughouse Square were functioning today," Despres continues, "what would we be talking about? AIDS, women's rights, is Poindexter a liar, is Reagan a liar, why do we have to eat poison in all our food, is the Vatican conspiring to take over the whole world?"

As for this afternoon's debate, with its presentation-rebuttal-question format, the Bughouse veterans later pronounce it amazingly decorous, quiet, and well behaved, one that could well have taken place inside the Newberry Library with no more disruption than it has occasioned outside it. Barbara Currie, south-side state representative, speaking virtually without notes, passionately urges the need for the Family and Medical Leave Acts, federal legislation allowing parents an unpaid leave of absence of up to 18 weeks to care for their kids--without losing their jobs when they return. Calling it a matter of Mom and apple pie, a good way to keep working mothers off the welfare rolls, and "a minimal first step to put the child and the family back in the center of the American way of life," Currie links the bill's opponents--like her adversary Sally Whalen of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association--to those who fought the Child Labor Act, the Civil Rights Bill, and welfare.

Whalen doesn't cotton to this kind of guilt by association. She ridicules Currie's heartbreaking case histories (for example, parents being replaced at work while watching over dying babies). Whalen calls it a "yuppie bill," full of unwarranted government interference and certain to be abused by live-in boyfriends; it will force, she says, employers to cut back on other employee benefits, compel other workers to pick up the slack, and "discriminate against people who can't afford to leave work for four months."

The crowd's questions--would the bill in effect subsidize a rising childbirth rate? what about its effect on the temporary workers hired to fill in during these absences?--come up after the debate, something that never happened in the rude old days of Bughouse Square.

Leon Despres returns to urge the audience to participate. Maybe his plea works or maybe it's the second subject, AIDS-contact tracing, but this debate gets nearly as hot as the Gulf air around it.

Opposing mandatory tracing of sexual contacts--as expensive, coercive, opposed by health authorities, ultimately useless, and the product of panicky politicians giving in to unfounded public fear--is the ACLU's Harvey Grossman. "Contact tracing as recently mandated by the Illinois legislature ultimately will harm the public health, not fight AIDS!"

Besides discouraging risk groups from voluntarily coming forward to be tested (the only practical way to slow the epidemic), Grossman argues contact tracing is a bullying "Big Brother" measure that in some states will require people who have broken the law--intravenous drug users and homosexuals committing sodomy--to identify themselves as criminals. Besides, the vast majority of people at risk know the danger of unsafe sex and have dramatically decreased such activities, proving the efficacy of the current voluntary system. Worst of all, the bills can't guarantee confidentiality or counseling (because of human nature and lack of money) to those who test positive and who run the risk of losing insurance, jobs, and housing.

Grossman cites several horror stories of a medieval discrimination against people who merely had a relation who tested positive and against hemophiliacs someone thought might have AIDS. "Considering the great discrimination involved, we must keep our systems of controlling AIDS voluntary." And all of this, he hammers home, is happening when the state legislature is moronically cutting back appropriations for voluntary testing centers!

Like a pit bull freed from its leash, former state representative Cal Skinner (he describes his political career as "in remission") rushes to the defense of the more permissive of the Springfield bills. Education isn't working, Skinner shouts, and cites a poll showing 50 percent of Illinois citizens wouldn't know what a positive antibody result meant to their health. So, Skinner counters, we must consider other measures to reach as quickly as possible those most likely to spread the virus. Skinner further insists the bill threatens no criminal penalties for those who won't divulge their contacts and a $10,000 fine for any doctor or health official who does.

Finally, playing hardball for keeps, Skinner blames gay leaders for urging homosexuals not to be tested, implying that they are forcing mandatory tracing as a legitimate public health response.

Tempers flare when Grossman hints at the necessity of a secret police to enforce the tracing. Skinner erupts: "Grossman's no one to cite Nazi tactics when he defended their right to march in Skokie!" The crowd--at long last--finally starts to jeer, boo, and hiss. Skinner fumes, unrepentant.

Sweating profusely, an old man screams at a photographer to stop blocking his view. During the question period, a nut case wearing creepy wraparound sunglasses (he'd have fit the old Bughouse Square like a dirty glove) approaches the podium to describe his illnesses in detail. Ignored, he saunters back to his seat but pops up his hand from then on. Meanwhile, two more traditional debates--on purely personal matters--flare up on the south side of the square. Well, it's already past 6 PM--an hour over the debate's intended length--and the Newberry confrontation finally grinds to an inconclusive halt.

Afterward, Despres said he thought the AIDS debate went extremely well: "It's a natural subject for Bughouse Square." Arthur Weinberg, Bughouse orator during the 30s and author of Attorney for the Damned, put the polemics in his own awesome perspective: "Those speakers got away with murder. There was no temptation to heckle them or anything." After recalling, for three reporters and two tape recorders, the spellbinding talkers he competed with regularly, Weinberg promised to return. Hobbling gracefully away on his cane, he was one of the last to leave the far too quiet square.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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