Rich and me: How we fell out

I once believed in the bungalow mayor, the neighborhood guy who didn't put on airs. Unfortunately, that guy didn't exist.

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For two decades you've known Richard M. Daley as mayor and boss of Chicago. As a columnist, I've been his chief critic. But there are a few things you probably don't know about the mayor and me.

I used to like him very much. And he knows it. Once he interviewed me for a job, and for about, oh, 20 seconds, I thought about hiring on.

And for years before I was a columnist, when I was the Tribune's City Hall writer, I was one of Daley's defenders. I believed in him and the myth and what I thought he was trying to do for Chicago.

We weren't exactly buddies, but we had a lot in common.

We spoke the same language, Soutwest Side — without the H. We both understood the importance of Dibs when it snowed. We both loved the White Sox.

He grew up in Bridgeport, to the north of the old Union Stockyards. And I was born at 52nd and Peoria, just to the south of all that livestock waiting for slaughter. And as kids, we both knew this truth:

Fresh air in Chicago smelled like 40,000 hogs.

Daley's rise to power, from prince of the city to its king, has been the driving story in Chicago for decades. On May 16 he turns Chicago over to a hand-picked successor. A city of tribes can't just watch the boss step down without feeling something, without reckoning.

And today is my day to reckon with it.

The Daleys knew my family, and lived just a few blocks from my uncles' restaurant, the De Le Mar in Bridgeport. It was a snack shop, nothing fancy, a Greek diner in the 1950s and 1960s, when his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, was in power. My aunts Fannie and Betty revered Richard J. and his wife, Eleanor "Sis" Daley.

When Mrs. Daley entered the De La Mar with her friends for lunch, usually around a quarter to noon, her order seldom varied: Iced tea, tuna fish on toast, chips.

And once she called my house on the very day my aunts were visiting.

"John? This is Mrs. Daley."

Mrs. Daley?

I must have said it out loud, because Aunt Fannie and Aunt Betty were shocked, their hands fluttering over the place settings at the dinner table, as they repeated to each other, "Mrs. Daley, Mrs. Daley, Mrs. Daley."

Chicago's queen mother had called to ask me to stop writing columns suggesting that the Chicago Cultural Center be named after her. Years earlier, she'd persuaded her husband to save it from the wrecking ball. I thought naming it after her would be a fitting tribute to a gracious lady. But she said please, no thanks.

I understood. On the Southwest Side, one of the great sins was what we called "acting big." Mrs. Daley never wanted anyone to think she was acting big. That's what made people admire her even more.

"Oh, and I like your article," she said, "but not when you're picking on my son."

By then, I was picking on her son. That was 12 years ago. But there was an earlier time when I believed in the promise of the young mayor, the neighborhood guy who said he'd never be a boss, the one who'd never make deals with Chicago Outfit messenger boys. He was the bungalow mayor who didn't put on airs, the mayor who refused to "act big," the decent father and husband who told me that no matter what happens in politics, you always leave the kids and the families out of it.

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