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The Last Harbor Boss

In the 1980s, Chicago was rife with graft of farcical proportions, including in the management of the city’s marinas. In a new book, excerpted here, a former top official looks back on the toughest job of his life: cleaning up the waterfront.

Illustrations: Zohar Lazar

People asked me how a former college chaplain landed the job of director of harbors and marine services for the Chicago Park District, a position so mired in corruption that the last four directors before me were sentenced to federal prison. I jokingly said that in my interview, when asked what denomination I served, I answered, “Tens and twenties mostly,” and was hired on the spot. In truth the only qualification essential for this job was a sense of humor.

It was March 1987. Only 10 days on the job, I was besieged and exhausted: I faced angry boaters who demanded to see me about their boat slip applications, harbor contractors with unpaid bills, lawsuits over slip assignments, and nervous staff members begging to keep their jobs. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, and Channel 7 news, armed with Freedom of Information Act requests, copied files all week, chasing various stories of harbor corruption. FBI agents showed up every other day, opened file cabinets, and asked questions. They scared the hell out of me. In the sixties at Cornell, they had investigated me for my antiwar activities, followed me everywhere, demanded to see my draft card, tapped my phone, and assembled a thick file on me, some of which is still classified, all of which got me fired. But this time around, a generation later, they had zeroed in on my predecessor, Gerald Pfeiffer. They were polite and asked for my help with records. I obliged them.

The marine director’s office was huge, with a double-wide window overlooking Soldier Field. The walls and ceiling were dirty and stained from years of chain-smoking. The fluorescent light fixtures were yellowed, and the threadbare carpet smelled of ground-in dirt from years of foot traffic. The broken glass in the office door, where the FBI officers had smashed their way in, was still covered with plywood. A large safe in one corner could not be opened, because only Pfeiffer knew the combination. His 50-gallon aquarium still bubbled away against one long wall. Dozens of tropical fish stared out at me. A cheap armoire in another corner was filled with Cook County sheriff’s uniforms. Pfeiffer had used his clout to get appointed a deputy sheriff—a common perk for pols, one that allowed them to carry a gun and make arrests. With a .357 magnum on his hip, he often made surprise visits to the harbors looking for harbor rule violators to intimidate and punish.

About 9:30 in the morning, my secretary knocked on my door. “Luke Cosme, one of the lakefront engineers, is here to see you.”

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The man entered tentatively, peering around, carrying two thick sets of rolled-up blueprints against his chest like an archaeologist carrying the Dead Sea Scrolls. Luke—old-school, way past retirement age, with thick silver hair, and almost British in manner—wore a dark blue pinstriped suit with a white handkerchief, a perfectly knotted striped tie, a light blue shirt that looked new, and polished wingtips that lifted and set down in measured, short steps as he approached my desk.

“Do you know I have not been allowed in this office for 10 years?” he said, shaking his head. “Your predecessor never once asked for our engineering opinion on anything in the harbors. When he wanted something, like specifications for that star dock contract that got him into trouble, for instance, he would gather us together in a conference room and dictate the specs he wanted. That was it.”

I realized Luke was one of those lifers my father told me to look for wherever I worked, an elder whose knowledge and expertise were critical. And here he’d come looking for me.

“Worst of all, Mr. Pfeiffer always carried a gun,” Luke continued.

“I knew he carried a gun in the harbors … but to meetings here?”

“Yes, and he would take off his suit coat so we could see the chrome barrel and bone handles. So intimidating, no one dared question him.”

 

In December of that year, six former employees of the marine department, with Gerald Pfeiffer at the head of the pack, were indicted for corruption by the feds. Charges included taking bribes of $500 to $5,000 from boaters for slips, accepting cash solicitations for political campaign events in exchange for boat slips, and receiving expensive gifts and kickbacks from companies doing business in the harbors. It was a sad day for honest workers in the marine department and the park district. All were now tainted. Even though everyone knew months ago that the federal indictment was coming down, the official announcement by the U.S. attorney, Anton Valukas, hit like a sledgehammer.

Most disturbing was the repeated pattern of corruption in the harbors. As Sun-Times reporter Barry Cronin wrote, “If convicted, the former harbor chief would follow in the line of harbor officials John Trinka, Anthony Munizzo, and Vito Abbinanti, all convicted of corruption-related offenses in the late ’70s.” I knew them all.

Cronin’s reminder gave me pause. Four harbor directors in a row over 25 years. Would I be compromised and become the fifth? Pfeiffer, too, had been an outside consultant brought in to clean up the harbors, only to succumb to the waves of bribery that never stopped flooding Chicago’s waterfront.

R.J. Nelson and Harold Washington
The author with Harold Washington in 1987 Photo: Paul Knott

A week or so before Harold Washington died that November, a boater stopped in my office inquiring about a boat slip. But first he showed me a glossy brochure with pictures of a penthouse condominium in Acapulco next to some marina where I assumed he kept a boat. Instead he explained it was a time-share and wondered if I might want to use it for a couple of weeks if I could help him out with a slip in Belmont. When I answered, “Absolutely not,” he quickly added, “It’s fully equipped and includes a companion—gender of your choice!” My mouth dropped open. I thought of calling security, but the boater would have just said he was showing me a brochure. Earlier, the owner of a well-known restaurant frequented by politicians had offered me two weeks in a palatial estate on Italy’s Lake Como if I would “consider” a slip in Burnham for his son, who had just acquired a 40-foot sailboat. And a well-connected tour bus owner with city contracts said he would find a job in his company for one of my friends or relatives who might need work.

I wondered what it would be like to be wired by the FBI.

One day the secretary to one of the newly appointed park commissioners handed me a manila envelope. Inside was a boat slip application with a check for the fee plus 10 crisp new 20-dollar bills, which fluttered to the floor. Thank God the director of security happened to be there to witness it. I called the commissioner, who claimed that he was just dropping off the application of a constituent. After I’d made numerous attempts to bring the boater in for an explanation, his teenage son showed up instead. He claimed his father had given him the cash to run errands and somehow he had mistakenly put the money in the wrong envelope. After telling him his father would have to reapply, I handed him a park district treasury check for the $200. He looked at it and asked if he could have the money in cash. He left very annoyed when I said no. I later believed the incident was a loyalty test set up by the commissioner: If I took the money, I could be trusted to do more favors down the road; if I didn’t, I could be punished. Simple as that.

Even after the indictments, bribe attempts were still routine: hundred-dollar bills left on the counter with a wink, gift certificates to Marshall Field’s, and even boxes of Fannie May candy with money between layers of chocolates. The general attorney of the park district, Nancy Kaszak, and I put antibribe procedures in place. Over-the-counter money, whether in my office or in the harbor master offices, was given to me, recorded, and time-stamped on a form identifying the boater. I would personally walk it down to Treasury, where it was deposited in a special escrow account from which a check would be issued to the boat owner along with his application and a stern reminder about the new harbor rules against gifts or considerations. The boater had to reapply to get on a computerized waiting list.

For Chicago’s movers and shakers, waiting two or three years for a desirable boat slip was not acceptable. The smart ones contacted their political connections during the winter ahead of boating season; the connections in turn called me. Alderman George Hagopian, an opponent of Harold Washington on the City Council, called, told me what a great job I was doing, and asked if I could look into one of his constituent’s applications. Of course. A week later he called back, and after receiving the bad news that the applicant would probably wait two years for a slip, Hagopian went ballistic: “You goddamned son of a bitch. I know how you got your job, and I’m telling you now I won’t rest until you’re out of there, motherfucker.” I hung up on him but not without a twinge of acid reflux. Congressman Charles Hayes, an adviser to Harold Washington, had been more civil with his request, but made it clear that if I didn’t help his boater friend, he would bring up the matter with Mayor Eugene Sawyer, Washington’s successor. That worried me; fortunately I never heard anything further.

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When political efforts failed, medical excuses for phony disabilities from family physicians and letters from lawyers threatening lawsuits for discriminating against allegedly “disabled” clients poured in. When these too failed, the movers and shakers reluctantly moored their boats in marinas in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan and waited until their applications crept to the top of the computerized list. I kept a printout on the customer service counter so that anyone could peruse the list and check their number for boat slip applications and assignments. Transparency was critical to gaining boaters’ trust, and an example of the spirit and the letter of the law in perfect harmony.

By late spring each year, only the hustlers, con men, and smalltimers were still trying. They flashed wads of Ben Franklins, convinced that when their clout didn’t come through, they could always go downtown with that all-purpose squeaky-wheel lube—cash.

One such hustler, in a shiny black leather motorcycle jacket, when repeatedly told at the counter that there was a minimum two-year wait for a boat slip, blurted out in pure Chicagoese: “What am I s’posed to do, keep da boat in my driveway?” A gold navy anchor bobbed along a thick gold neck chain, a thicker gold chain wrapped his wrist. With his right fist around a wad of hundred-dollar bills, he banged on the counter and shouted at one of the clerks. “Listen honey, I ain’t leavin’ till I get a spot for my boat. So you tell me who I gotta see to get one,” said the guy, loud enough for me to hear.

The clerk tried her best to explain the new procedures, as did the marine inspector, and then the assistant director, but the boater would not be put off, his feet firmly planted on the principle—perfected in Chicago if not invented here—that money talks and bullshit walks. When the frustrated clerk apologetically told me that nobody could handle this guy, I told her to send him in. He rolled past her like a bowling ball in the groove for a strike, stuck a pudgy hand, complete with diamond pinkie ring, across my desk, and shook my hand like we were old buddies.

“How you doin’?” he asked.

“That depends,” I answered, trying to avoid sneezing from his cheap cologne or breath freshener, I was not sure which.

“You da boss, you know, da Harbor Boss?”

I leaned back in my chair and savored the words, the first time I had thought of myself as Chicago’s Harbor Boss, a derogatory term always used in the press to describe my jailbird predecessors.

After a pause I answered, “Yes, I am the Harbor Boss.”

As the boater helped himself to a chair and scooted up to my desk, I felt as if some sort of Mafia ceremony were about to take place endowing me with the inalienable right of bosses to reward or punish, deny or dispense favors—the lifeblood of Chicago’s political system.

“I bet you know Mickey da Pizza King,” he continued, ramrod straight on the edge of his chair. “His boat down in Burnham Harbor, ain’t it. He sez hello, sez you’re doing a real good job.”

Yes, I knew Mickey. Back when I was selling boats, I’d met him at one of former park district superintendent Edmund Kelly’s fundraiser dinners at the Conrad Hilton Grand Ballroom—a must-attend for boat peddlers needing moorings for their customers. Mickey had sat next to my wife. After a long invocation by some neighborhood priest from Kelly’s “fighting 47th Ward,” we all stood up for the national anthem as a huge American flag unfurled in front of an air-conditioning duct near the ornate ceiling. Mickey was the first to sit down, and as soon as his slab of beef and mashed potatoes were served, he ate them with his fingers, gravy and all. My wife was so disgusted she swore she’d never attend another political fundraiser.

“Well, thank Mickey for me,” I said with a yawn to the past. “Now what can I do for you?”

Illustration by Zohar Lazar
Bribe attempts were routine: hundred-dollar bills left on the counter with a wink, gift certificates to Marshall Field’s, boxes of Fannie May candy with money between layers of chocolates.

He leaned forward and lowered his balding head far enough that I could see the spray-painted fake hair on his scalp. The man put his empty right hand on my desk, the other, still holding a wad of cash, on his lap. “I got this problem,” he said. “I paid a lotta money for my boat and got no place to put it. Nobody told me getting a spot in Chicago would be a problem. So that’s why I come downtown to see you, boss. You just tell me what I gotta do to get a dock or whatever you call it.”

“I believe my staff explained the procedures.”

“Yeah, I know all that, but what do I gotta do for you?” he said, his eyelids blinking repeatedly as if to underline that whatever offer he was about to make, I couldn’t refuse it.

As I folded my hands on the desk, he did the same, except he was holding his wad tightly in his left hand so I could see it. In the old days before Pfeiffer, nothing had to be said; a cigar box would be slid across the desk and when the boater opened it he would see no cigars, just big bills rolled and rubber-banded, waiting to be added to. Message understood.

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I had no cigar box, but a different message. I took a deep breath and with a fake smile looked him in the eyes.

“There is one thing you can do for me. If you can pull it off, I will give you any boat slip in the city.”

“OK, good, now we’re talkin’.” He was excited.

When he asked what I needed, I answered slowly, exaggerating each syllable for effect, “The Nobel Prize for peace,” and then added, “Now get out of my office.”

The guy stood up and stuffed the wad in his pocket. Not insulted, not wiping the smile off his face or calling me names, he nodded acceptance and replied, “OK, boss, I’m on it.”

He actually thanked me as he left my office. I watched him walk down the hall to the escalator, a swagger in his step, his head held high. I knew what he was thinking, probably muttering to himself over and over as he left the building: “How do I get me one of dem Noble Prizes?”

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