Belmont Club

"There Isn't Any Idea"

The one of the early Ernest Hemingway stories was a piece called “The Killers”. “The writer’s depiction of the human experience, his use of satire, and the everlasting themes of death, friendship, and the purpose of life have contributed to make ‘The Killers’ one of Hemingway’s most famous and frequently anthologized short stories.” But he left one the principal characters out: Chicago.

“The Killers” was written in the 1920s when organized crime was at its prime during Prohibition. Chicago was the home of Al Capone. Hemingway himself had spent time in Chicago as a young man. When things became too dangerous for the mob they would retreat to the suburb of Summit, where “The Killers” takes place. Despite Hemingway’s knowledge of organized crime he omitted much of that background from the story. Hemingway himself said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.”

But it’s not that hard if you really try. Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune noted that today’s suicide of Phil Pagano, the head of Chicago’s rail transit system brings the number of prominent men under investigation to have taken their lives to a total of three. “That will be three instance of prominent local men in trouble taking their own lives since last September (Christopher Kelly, former adviser and confidante of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Chicago Public School board president Michael Scott). I don’t recall any other such clusters in local history, but I may be forgetting something.”  One thing the train driver won’t soon be forgetting is the sight of Pagano looking him straight in the eye as the train bore down on him.

An inbound commuter train carrying two dozen passengers came barreling through Crystal Lake shortly after 8 a.m. The engineer told officials in a statement that he saw Pagano about 5 to 10 seconds before impact. Despite the locomotive’s squealing brakes and piercing air horn, Pagano stood firm in the middle of the tracks. He looked the engineer right in the eye.

He was killed instantly. … Pagano’s attorney George Jackson III declined to comment on the meeting, citing respect for Pagano’s family. He described his client as “a wonderfully nice guy.”

The Chicago Sun-Times yesterday reported that “Pagano was suspended last week, pending an investigation that he paid himself an unauthorized $56,000 bonus and other “more serious allegations of official misconduct,” according to the attorney hired to conduct the inquiry.” Dick Durbin had added fuel to the fire by asking the inspector general of the US Department of Transportation “to investigate whether federal funds were misused”.

Durbin’s request came after the Federal Transit Administration Tuesday placed the suburban rail service on “restricted drawdown status” for federal funds, meaning Metra’s federal grants will get additional oversight. … In a statement, Metra Chair Carole Doris said Metra will cooperate fully with the FTA and the Inspector General and “will comply with any enhanced reporting requirements deemed appropriate.”

The Chicago-Tribune editorialized that “people will draw conclusions from those facts, just as readers drew conclusions from other suicides involving high-profile officials who’d come under scrutiny. …

There was Christopher Kelly, who swallowed a fatal overdose of over-the-counter medications last fall. Kelly was facing prison time for tax charges and mail fraud. He’d been a close friend and adviser to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and was under pressure to testify against him. …

There was Michael Scott, the Chicago Board of Education president whose body was found face down in the Chicago River last fall, a bullet wound to the left temple. He didn’t leave a note.

A couple of years earlier, there was Cook County Board insider Orlando Jones, who killed himself days after police in Las Vegas recommended that he be charged in a contract scheme at a public hospital that was run by a former Cook County official. …

We’re not suggesting that we know anything more here than the facts as outlined in news stories about these four public figures. We don’t draw conclusions or presume to read anyone’s thoughts.

At some level, every suicide is a mystery. We may learn some of the factors that drove Pagano, as we did with Kelly. But the deeper answers are ultimately unfathomable to all except the person who decides to chamber a bullet, swallow the pills, or step in front of a train.

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Man is a mystery. Like the strangers at the counter said, “there isn’t any idea”.


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