Maybe it’s the spring weather or the fact that my daughter asked me her The Robot and the Bluebird twice this morning but Roger Ebert’s death hit me harder this afternoon than I would have expected. According to Twitter and Facebook, this sadness is shared by many other Chicagoans of my generation.
Perhaps our sadness is about more than Ebert. Look at the most evocative Ebert photos going around as we sit virtual shiva: many of them are black and white shots from back when we were kids. From back before cable (it came late in Chicago) and Twitter, when we were an audience, and watched TV and read newspapers and listened to the radio. When we were passive we watched and consumed and grew icons. And Ebert was one of the last ones we had. (And his Chicagoness lived in his Twitter handle.)
Ray Rayner and Bozo were there when we were kids, but that was fleeting. Siskel was always a bit distant. Steve Dahl hasn’t been the same since breaking up with Garry Meier, and hasn’t been on the radio in years. John Brandmeier was key to me, and is back in force, but he’s always been more Wisconsin than Chicago– save for when he went Hollywood.
Jesse Jackson never really was Chicago, at least not on the North Side- he was national. Most Chicagoans didn’t know much about Obama prior to the convention speech. Saul Bellow was a bit too old and a bit too distant. Harold Washington died so soon. Mayor Daley hasn’t been seen much in the two years since leaving office, other than in our previous celebrity civic mourning.
We have Ditka, the coach. Sweetness is gone. Jim McMahon turned out to be an asshole– or always was, and we just didn’t know. Michael Jordan was never ours. Pippen gave up on us when he refused to enter that game against the Knicks in ’94. Urlacher didn’t want us.
Derrick Rose is an icon in waiting, one of our own whom we follow for years. But that feels more doubtful each day that passes.
The joy of today is a celebration of Ebert’s fortitude– not just in his battles against cancer and alcoholism, but for successfully transitioning from the mass media age to our present fragmented one. Among Ebert’s mourners today are people who discovered him on Twitter as well as people who found him through Sneak Previews on Channel 11. (The duo began on public television.)
There may never be another Chicagoan read and watched by so many of our neighbors.
(Another Chicago institution, Kartemquin Films, has been working on Life Itself, a documentary about Ebert.)