Monday, June 23, 2008

Never Working a Day in his Life

It’s been nearly two weeks now since business came to a halt. But Kevin takes it in stride.

“Could be worse,” he says. “Look at all the other areas up north that are severely affected.”

Kevin (he gives only his first name) owns Jet Funn, a boat rental business on Fox Lake, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. Part of a patchwork of lakes just south of the Wisconsin border known as the Chain O’ Lakes, Fox Lake has found itself inundated with water running
down from Wisconsin, the result of severe rain there earlier this month. The Daily Herald newspaper reported that the water level on the Chain O’ Lakes the other day reached two-and-a-half feet above “flood stage,” defined by the National Weather Service as the level at which water begins to impact people or property.

Now, Fox Lake is closed to boat traffic.

“It’s finally goin’ down,” remarks Kevin, standing some 75 feet away from where water surrounds his docks and nips away at his shoreline.

“So, it’s just goin’ down very slowly.”

Kevin, who’s 44, has worked at Jet Funn for 23 years now. He grew up in the area and has family down in St. Charles, a western suburb of Chicago. He generally doesn’t have time to go into the city this time of year, since he and his staff are so busy, but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. “It’s nice here,” he says. “I like it up here.”

On this sunny Saturday afternoon, Kevin— who wears gray shorts, a light green T-shirt, and sandals, and sports a boyish face beneath short, straight hair that has started to gray— walks around with pliers and a metal coil in his hand, as country music plays somewhere nearby. His coworker Mandy works on a pontoon boat sitting on the ground in front of the rental office. Although there are no customers, they keep busy with other work, including cleaning boats, as they wait for the water level on the lake to drop.

Inside the office, three WaveRunners sit on the floor near a fiery-red-and-black fish named Spike— the office’s lone occupant for now. Seventeen clipboards hang from the wall behind the counter, all of them empty. “And then we got extra ones, too,” offers Kevin, “for when we really get rolling.”

Located several minutes’ walk from Fox Lake’s commuter train station, Jet Funn sees a lot of people come up from Chicago by train. On an average summer weekend, Kevin estimates the place will have maybe 30 or 40 rental contracts a day. A friend of his once counted a couple hundred people.

Nearby establishments include, down the road, boat-sales and sporting-goods places, and across the lake, the local chapter of the American Legion. Also on the Chain O’ Lakes sit restaurants, marinas, and bars. Otherwise, most of the area around here is residential. “There’s no such thing as, really, competition,” muses Kevin. “Plenty of water out here for everybody. Which is good.”

In all his years working here, he’s seen flooding like this five other times, including this past April. When asked whether being out of commission during this time adversely affects business, or whether sales later on will balance things out, he’s quick to answer: “It’ll never balance out.”

“You just make it work,” he says. “You have no control over the weather. That’s one thing we’ve learned, so we just try and keep ourselves busy. It’s hard.”

It’s one of the rare times this afternoon Kevin betrays frustration.

If you love the job you’re doing, he goes on, “you never work a day in your life.”

“I know so many people who get so frustrated, and they’re like, ‘Oh, God, I got to go to work,’ or ‘I hate my F-ing job.’ I’m like, ‘Well, then, don’t go.’ You know? You don’t have to go. You don’t have to do anything. All you do is, you have to like your job, and plus, you have to make money and pay your bills.”

“I love working here. It’s a lot of fun,” he adds. “Would I trade it for the world? No, I wouldn’t trade it. It just would be nice to have a day off every once in a while, but… that’s about it. That’s it.

“If you like the job you’re doing, you never work a day in your life.”

As he goes back to not working, with pliers and coil in hand, he looks forward to the day he can do so with customers again.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

No Smoking, Please, on This Side of the Street

In December, 2005, the Chicago City Council did something either amazing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. By a vote of 46 to 1, it passed a law banning smoking in many public places in Chicago, including restaurants, workplaces, and bars. As of the following January 16, most places would have to comply with the ordinance; bars and taverns would have until July, 2008, after which point they could allow smoking only if they had an air-filtration system that made the air inside the place as clean as the air outside.

Among the critics of the law, bar owners at the periphery of the city had a legitimate business concern: Customers who wanted to smoke would simply cross the city limits into a suburb that allowed it.

That fear was mostly allayed last July when the Illinois General Assembly passed a similar, statewide smoking ban. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was all too happy to sign into law the Smoke Free Illinois Act, which took effect January 1. With the new law, no more loophole with air-filtration systems— and no more concern that smokers in Chicago would cross into so-called “collar” suburbs to drink and smoke.

At least not into collar suburbs in Illinois.

Thursday evening, I took a trip with my bicycle down to Calumet City, a collar suburb of Chicago that borders Indiana, a state that does not have a smoking ban. Just 200 feet west of the Illinois-Indiana state line, I came upon Lauer’s Pub, a single-story, stand-alone shack of a building with Cubs and White Sox calendars posted out front. Inside, the long, dim room was crowded with sports paraphernalia, a pool table, and electronic gambling machines. “Wheel of Fortune” played on a TV above the bar.

Absent from the room was the smell of smoke.

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink and a glass of water, having biked through humidity-laden heat. I asked the bartender, Erica, if she had seen a drop-off in the number of people coming in since the statewide smoking ban took effect in January. She said she had.

The guy sitting to my right had a different view: “It depends on who you talk to,” he offered.

I wanted to follow up with Erica, but she soon announced to the handful of customers, “Does anyone need a beer or a drink or something? I’m going outside to smoke a cigarette.” She invited me to come outside with her to continue talking. I did.

As she and two customers lit up cigarettes under a lazily setting sun, Erica told me that on an average night, she used to see 25 to 50 people come in. Now, it was more like 10 to 15.

“But then again,” she added, “I associate it with it being warm out.”

Erica told me she moved back to the Midwest some four-and-a-half months ago after living in Southern Florida. Down there, she said, she worked professionally in the hospitality industry.

“When I go out to dinner, I don’t want smoking around me,” she explained. But she did want to be able to smoke in other places.

Back in the bar, I got to talking with Larry, a guy with a very-loose-fitting tank top and an acerbic sense of humor.

I asked Larry what he did.

“I’m a professional alcoholic,” he replied.

I asked if he’d been coming to Lauer’s Pub for a long time.

“I’ve been coming to every bar for a long time,” he said.

I asked whether the smoking ban, or— as someone told me— a move to make bars in Calumet City close earlier, have contributed to a decline in customers at bars around here.

“All of the above,” he responded. “Everybody’s losing money.”

All right; it was an unscientific survey, at best.

As I prepared to head off, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small flame sparkle up. When I looked over, I couldn’t see anyone smoking. But when I walked down to that end of the room and checked out an electronic gambling machine, I smelled cigarette smoke.

The smell wafted by me as a man walked out the back door.


The first town into Indiana from Calumet City is Hammond, a craggy city of about 80,000 that’s perhaps most famous to Chicagoans for its Horseshoe Casino. While the Chicago Skyway, an elevated highway, passes high above the city, crossing over from Illinois is as simple as crossing the street.

Biking over that street, State Line Rd., and past the large, 24-hour cigarette store that toes the border with Illinois (Indiana has lower taxes on cigarettes), I found Bucket’s Place, another standalone bar.

Shortly before 8 p.m., I took a seat at the bar. About a dozen people sat at the bar or around a table, or shot pool, as country music blared from the jukebox.

Cigarette smoke lingered in the air.

I ordered a cheeseburger and asked the bartender if she had seen an increase in customers here since the Illinois smoking ban took effect.

“No, not really,” she replied. Most of the customers were regulars, she explained.

The man next to me, who looked to be in his mid-50’s and wore a short-sleeved, button-down shirt and jeans, introduced himself as Chopper. He said he worked as bar manager at the American Legion of Hammond.

I asked Chopper if he had seen more people come over here because of the smoking ban.

“F--- Illinois,” he said. “Illinois, they ain’t got nothing! They screwed themselves.”

I could only presume he was referring to the smoking ban.

When I pressed him on whether he had seen more people at bars here, he informed me, as he lit up a cigarette, that bingo had picked up at the American Legion, where smoking was allowed.

What about the seagulls flying over the beaches?, he went on. “I think it’s a $500 fine if you’re caught smoking on the beach over in Chicago.” (It is.) “Think about that! Not the f---ing seagulls.”

He coughed a wheezing cough.

As Chopper took a call on his cell phone, I slipped out and prepared to unlock my bike for the trip back to Chicago. As I did, another man biked up.

I asked him the same question I had been asking, in one form or another, all evening.

“Oh, I couldn’t say,” the man replied politely.

As I got ready to ride off, he added, “I’ll say one or two people I’ve noticed coming over.”

I thanked him.

Once across the street, I bent my head down and breathed in.

My shirt reeked of cigarette smoke.