If you didn’t know who the mayor of Chicago was before arriving at City Hall, you certainly knew it after. The name seemed to be on every door, sign and plaque in the place. Everything down to the elevator buttons brought to you by Hizzoner. And what a place: a huge neoclassical structure that takes up an entire city block, its top half dominated by fluted columns. A symbol of the power handed down from the former boss to his son, more in the tradition of Pakistani democracy than the Midwestern American brand. I walked through the building, trying not to look like a gaper and failing miserably. The lobby of Toronto’s city hall feels like a giant library; Chicago’s is more like a train station or cathedral with its vaulted ceilings and dim brass lamps, the gleaming filigreed brass around its elevators.
The Department of Buildings is on the ninth floor. This is where you come to get zoning permits, arrange inspections, obtain forms, fill out forms, hand in forms. Apply for licences to work as plumbers, electricians, masons and crane operators. To comply, voluntarily or otherwise, with the city’s codes regarding repairs and maintenance.
I guessed I was the only one coming here to raise hell about Simon Birk.
The elevator opened onto a long, bright hallway that echoed with every footstep. There was a counter with computer monitors where visitors could look up city maps, real estate lots, city regulations or their horoscope. Beyond that was the entrance to the Department of Zoning and Licensing. On my left when I walked in was a reception area where dozens of people sat in various stages of impatience, boredom and resignation, four rows of them in the mayor’s chairs. I took a seat, anticipating a long wait.
“Six fucking inches,” said the man next to me, a stocky middle-aged fellow in a Cubs jacket. “That’s what I’m here for-six fucking inches.”
“I think Urology’s down the hall.”
He laughed and clapped my shoulder. “My deck, I’m talking about. Back of my house. Building inspector comes around, tells me it has to be torn down and rebuilt because it’s five and a half feet away from the interior lot line, and the minimum distance is six feet. I say to him, ‘Fella, we’re talking six inches, gimme a break here.’ You know what he says? He says, ‘Measure twice, build once,’ the little prick. ‘You don’t like it,’ he says, ‘you can always appeal.’ So that’s what I’m doing here, wasting my time, wasting their time, over six fucking inches. I mean, it’s not some landmark building or heritage property, it’s my goddamn house. My next-door neighbour doesn’t give a shit. Nobody gives a shit. I probably should have offered the guy something, huh? What do you think? A hundred bucks? Five hundred? Gonna cost me five grand to tear it down and rebuild-if I can reuse all the wood-and that’s not even counting my goddamn time.” He looked at his watch, at the number of people around us waiting, and sighed deeply.
“Enough of my bullshit,” he said. “So what are you here for?”
“High-rise demolition,” I said.
“I think you’re in the wrong line for that,” he said. “You want to be down the other end of the hall where the project managers are.”
I thanked him and he wished me luck, which I appreciated. Tearing down an empire is bound to require some. Then I walked past three long curved desks, each of which housed three workstations for project managers. People sat in chairs along the wall-architects or contractors, the architects with smooth hands and expensive pens clipped to their shirt pockets; the contractors with dusty clothes, scuffed boots and rough hands with cuts in every stage of healing.
A middle-aged African-American woman with long hair extensions said, “How can I help you today?”
I asked, “Are you familiar with the developer Simon Birk?”
“Honey, everyone knows Simon Birk. What is it you want?”
“Everything. His permit reviews. Zoning variances. Work place safety. Citizen opposition. Soil and water reports.”
“For which building?”
“All his buildings.”
There were half-moon bifocals perched at the end of her nose. She gave me a long look over the glasses and said, “You sure that’s all? You don’t want to know what he eats for lunch?”
I already knew what he ate for lunch. People like Rob Cantor. Suckers who thought they were his partners.
“Well, fortunately for me, it’s Developer Services you want,” the clerk said. “They process applications for high-rise buildings. Did you have an appointment?”
“Do I need one?”
“Oh, yeah. If you’re asking, I’m guessing you don’t have one.”
“You can make one now, or apply for one online, which is probably quicker.”
“I’m visiting from Toronto,” I said. “Is there any way I could just speak to someone-“
“Sugar, it doesn’t matter if you’re visiting from Tobago.”
“So who would I make the appointment with? Who’s the most familiar with Birk’s new project?”
“The Millennium Skyline?” She had long pink fingernails decorated with glittering pinwheel-shaped swirls. She tapped her keyboard and said, “The project administrator on that was Peter Stemko.”
“Can’t I just-“
“What if I-“
“No! Not without an appointment. And Mr. Stemko’s only going to tell you what I’m going to tell you: there’s not much you can get without a freedom of information request, and that you will not get overnight.”
“What if I had information about safety violations?”
Her look was entirely skeptical, but the crane collapse, and the death of three workers, was too recent an incident for her to ignore me. “You said you wanted information. Now all of a sudden you got some?”
“I do. I can say for a fact that a violation occurred not an hour ago.”
“A man on site without proper equipment. No hard hat, no boots, nothing.”
“That’s not something we handle.” She looked over my shoulder and called out, “Next person in line.”
There was only one thing left to do in this situation. Get loud.
“Is it because he’s Simon Birk?” I said, my voice rising. Other clerks at the counter looked our way-exactly the reaction I was hoping for. “People have died because of him. And not just those poor workmen.”
“Sir?” she said. “There’s no need to raise your voice with me.”
“The name is Geller,” I said. “Jonah Geller. And this department should be looking very closely at Simon Birk. He abuses the environment. His employees. The families of the men who died building his tower. The very process that-“
“Please lower your voice!”
“Lower it!” I thundered. “I’ll raise the roof if I have to.”
“Kid has a set of pipes on him,” a man behind me said.
Everyone was looking our way now. Clerks, other employees, the people sitting and waiting their turn.
“Simon Birk,” I bellowed, “is getting away with murder, just because he’s rich.”
“Hear, hear,” an older woman said. “I never did care for his attitude.”
The clerk was on the phone now, calling security, no doubt.
I put up my hands in surrender and walked to the elevator. People gave me a wide berth. “All right,” I said. “I’m going. But Simon Birk better look over his shoulder because I won’t rest until he pays for everything he’s done. Jonah Geller is not giving up on this. Jonah Geller never gives up.”
When the elevator came, I stepped into it. No one else from the ninth floor got in with me.
As the doors closed, I heard an elderly man say, “I know Simon Birk from the newspapers. But who the hell’s this Geller?”