[The mayor of Chicago, in his City Hall office, calls a close ally, Alderman Sundharan “Sunny” Roopini, for a late one conversation.]
“What do you want, Sunny?”
The mayor kept the thick walnut-clad television set in his office burning constantly, like a peet fire in a cottage in Galway. He told visitors that the low din camouflaged all conversation from a wide, indiscriminate inventory of sinister interests.
“What? Who?” Sunny finally asked one night. “Who would possibly bug this place?”
“I am useful to my friends and strike fear in my enemies. I get my name on schools. I don’t stop for red lights. The owner always sends over dessert. Everyone laughs at my jokes. It’s a nice life. I don’t want to live any other way.”
The mayor rolled his eyes and held a finger to his lips. “CIA,” he finally mouthed softly. “KGB. Russians, Chinese, and Israelis. Oil companies, pharmaceutical firms, Cosa Nostra, al-Qaeda, and the House of Saud. The IRA, IRS, and FBI. Prosecutors, Martians, and Klingons.”
Sunny was suspicious of the mayor’s avowals, but admiring. His warning had the effect of making his visitors hem, haw, and stutter; the mayor’s replies could be efficiently embroidered and oblique.
“What do you want, Sunny?” he repeated, raising his volume as he slid the control on the television screen up another three digits. The late-night news had ended and a wild-eyed man onscreen bellowed the letters and names of each vitamin he had been able to excavate from carrot pulp. “A! B! B6! C! D! E!”
“To die in my bed at one hundred, beautiful women sobbing and massaging my toes,” said Sunny, pausing between his delusions. “The girl who wouldn’t go to the junior prom with me, shrieking that she was wrong. My daughters bereft and sniveling. Lance Armstrong wailing that I was the only guy who could keep up with him on the hill climbs. Much general weeping and lamentation.”
The mayor snorted cigar smoke from his nostrils like a dragon toy in Chinatown. “Besides,” he finally grunted.
“I don’t know,” replied Sunny. “At least, I don’t want to tell you. That’s—intimate. Something you tell a spouse, a lover. Something you put in a prayer.”
“I can do things for you those others can’t.” The mayor slapped his lap loudly with the palm of his hands. “Want isn’t a weakness, Sunny,” he announced. “We’d still be trailing our tails if one of our ancestors hadn’t decided he was tired of getting sand up his ass and came out of the water to walk. Want is the wind that spins the world around,” the mayor declared slowly and musically. “Nothing shameful about that.”
Sunny sat back on the sofa, so that the mayor would have to twist his shoulder and waist around to look into his face. He thought he could hear the mayor’s lungs groan like a bus starting up as he twisted around to meet Sunny’s eyes.
“Telling someone what you want—it makes you vulnerable,” Sunny said. “You divulge your dreams, and you show someone the best place to hurt you.”
The mayor held Sunny’s gaze for a moment, looking back at him with new interest. “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours,” he said finally. “I want to be mayor of Chicago. Forever. Not senator, not president of the United States, or Coca Cola. Not the king of Monaco, the Aga Khan, or even Steven Spielberg. I can’t imagine—I don’t fantasize—about anything else. No women, no money, no boys, no goats. This is what I want. I’ll do anything to stay here. Anything. Do you know how much that is? I would lie, cheat, steal—murder, if I knew how to get away with it. I get away with plenty as it is.
“I am useful to my friends and strike fear in my enemies. I get my name on schools. I don’t stop for red lights. The owner always sends over dessert. Everyone laughs at my jokes. Places that wouldn’t hire me with my night school degree now beg me to give jobs to their sons. People ponder the significance of me clearing my throat. People compete to make me smile, like I was a two year old. I bestow a wink or a wave, and they tell the story till they die. It’s a nice life. I don’t want to live any other way.
The mayor sat back heavily, the plush cushion behind him sighing deeply. “So, what do you want, Sunny?”
“Nothing that—elaborate,” he said finally. “I’ll run for re-election next year. If I win—”
“If, if, if—” the mayor grunted.
“It’s my last term. Enough. I’ll get serious about the restaurant. Out of office, I’ll finally be able to get a liquor license. Maybe open a classy place in Lincoln Park. Finally make some money for my daughters.”
“Nobody from the 48th can run for mayor, you know,” the mayor observed as he stood up slowly and shook out his right leg. “It’s a piece of jagged glass. Sikhs, Koreans, bearded Jews, bible-thumpers, hillbillies, Pashtuns, Oaxacans, Menominee, Jamaicans, Nigerians—and I’m just getting started.
“Everybody brags on being the most aggrieved,” the mayor explained as he settled uncertainly onto the edge of the sofa table. “The Chicanos think the Cambodians have had it easier. The Cubans think the Haitians get breaks they never did. The Chinese say you can’t tell the Vietnamese from the Thais. The blacks say Koreans are pushing them out. The Koreans say blacks are pushing them around. Whites say they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Blacks remind them: at least you were born with boots. African-Americans get huffy because the Jamaicans, the Nigerians, and that’s right, Sunny, the Hindus all get off the boats, the planes, the busses, with your cute little British accents, holding advanced degrees from provincial universities in your hands like fresh bouquets. A man who wins elections up in your neck of the city is like the astronaut who jumps twenty feet on the moon. Up there, he’s Baryshnikov. But back on earth …”
The mayor stood, listing slightly to walk back behind his desk, settled into his chair and leveled his cigar at Sunny like a nautical glass.
“But I’m not telling you anything you haven’t figured out on your own, am I?”
“I always learn from you, Mr. Mayor.”
There was another smoky snort. “I can’t be flattered, Sunny. I have too high an opinion of myself.”
From Scott Simon’s The Windy City (Random House 2008).
Scott Simon is the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. He has reported stories from all fifty states and every continent, and has won every major award in broadcasting. He is the author of the memoir Home and Away, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, and the novels Windy City and Pretty Birds. He lives with his wife, Caroline, and their daughters, Elise and Lina.