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Unexpected Wisdom: The Drunk on North Avenue

By: Mark Meshulam | Apr 3 2006 | 704 words | 145 hits

I grew up on North Avenue, a 4-lane street cutting East-West across the middle of Chicago. My folks owned a clothing store there and our family lived upstairs. It was 1961 and I was 9 years old.

On each corner was a tavern. Not chic-chic martini bars, not Viagra-triangle cigar bars, but hard-core bastions of liver-pickling alcoholism.

Both bars smelled the same. An unforgettable cloud of cigarette butts and beer ground into vomit-marinated asbestos floor tiles hovered outside the door of each darkened den.

In these bars, working stiffs drank away their families' savings, squatting on backless barstools, hunched over formica bartops with shellacked wooden edges. They came straight from work and stayed until midnight, staggered home to angry wives in cloth dresses, fell into a coma after an exchange of harsh words or hurt silences, then started over again the next day.

Since our store was situated in the middle of the block, we often witnessed an unsteady migration of drunkards as they moved from bar to bar. Some mornings we might find a biohazardous remnant of their journey, which my father would briskly hose off as a very first order of business.

In this unlikely crosscurrent, one day a moment of lucidity and premonition took place. One of the pitiful procession decided to stop and talk to me. He hung on the parking meter and was barely able to avoid falling down.

"Come here boy, I want to tell you something", he said.

I edged closer into unfamiliar territory. Usually we tried to stay away from the drunks and they ignored us in turn. But this guy wanted to talk.

"I don't know everything", he slurred, "I don't. Nobody does. Nobody knows everything and either do I. You don't, I don't, and neither does the President of the United States."

"But I'll tell you something right now," he continued. "I may not know everything, but dammit, I know where to find it if I need it. Thats the key. You gotta know where to find what you need to know. I may not know, but I know how to find out."

Flash forward 43 years, to 2004. I had been in the window and door business for 23 years. I had made a mistake on a building which cost my company thirty thousand dollars. I didn't know that my doors needed a 32" clear opening which was needed to meet handicapped code. I am puzzled. How could I, with all of my experience, have not known this would be required?

Forward 2 more years. I meet an architect who knows the laws pertaining to accessibility very well, probably because she uses a wheelchair herself. I begin to quiz her. I am confused because I don't know which codebook governs, therefore I don't know which rules to follow.

She tells me that my confusion is well-founded and widespread. There are three sets of rules, Federal, State and City, and they say different things. The biggest developers and architects in Chicago are as confused as I am.

Now we come back to the drunk and his point.

I could have done an internet search on the handicapped code and maybe studied the state code at length and felt myself to be informed. But if I didn't know there were two other codes and their interrelationship, I would be, unknowingly, two-thirds in the dark. I needed an informed expert to give me that overall perspective.

I knew that I could troll the internet for an answer, but I could not know how that answer fit the larger picture.

Now that information runs freely, we need a way to place relative values on things which bob up and down in the overflowing info canal. We need meta-information. Information about information. Which information is better than the other? Which supercedes? Which is specific and which is general? Which is more current? Which is obsolete?

The drunk was speaking to you, Google. It's not enough to get 29,662 listings in response to a word search. Does being in the top ten keyword responses equate with being good, well rounded information? Not yet. We are progressing, but we are not there yet.

Some day we too will know where to find what we need to know. Some day we will catch up with the drunk on North Avenue.

About author:
Mark Meshulam offers keyboard shortcuts, and an email tickler system, at
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    The Drunk on