Leavitt: Opening doors with just a smile

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

I have noted an unusual trend on Cheddar, which would likely interest my late friend Gary Wright, who was, also, an unusual phenomenon.

And that sentence, I’m sure, may also be strange to anyone who reads it.

For one thing, those of you who are rock ’n’ roll fans may be disappointed that my friend was not the same Gary Wright who was responsible for the song “Dream Weaver” and the album “You Broke My Heart, So I Busted Your Jaw.” Sorry.

The Wright I’m referring to was a detective in the Champaign, Ill., Police Department in the previous century. Before I’m through here, I’m going to tell you why some of his friends used to call him Leonard. That sounds rather prosaic, but I guarantee that after you hear it, you’ll tell somebody else.

The Cheddar I’m referring to is not cheese. Sorry again, this time to the foodies, but the Leonard story does have to do with something edible, so I hope you’re not too disappointed, either.

The Cheddar I have in mind may be familiar to some of you as a two-year-old brainstorm of BuzzFeed founder Jon Steinberg. On various digital platforms, Cheddar presents business news in morsels tiny enough for dummies like me to find irresistible. One of its features is display of some of the latest inventions from all over the world, and also things that are not quite so innovative. The other day, it gave tuckpointing a buildup fit for rocketry.

The unusual trend is that, interspersed among the jet-packs, stair-climbing wheelchairs and epoxy countertops, Cheddar presents a surprising number of new anti-crime devices. I find that strange because crime is not on the upswing lately, so I wonder what everybody’s suddenly so darned frightened about that there’s a market for this stuff.

Maybe it’s all this talk about MS-13 running rampant through America’s streets. I could be wrong.

One of the most recent devices was a huge safe built into a sofa. Pick up the cushions and a little padding, and there it is, stretching from arm to arm. It must be as much fun for furniture movers as a grand piano.

Twice in one month, Cheddar had videos of door barricades. These are newer models for people unsatisfied with traditional door bars, which will keep out most mortals. Those feature a two-by-four across the middle of the door, slid through a couple of steel sleeves bolted onto the wall on either side. You can get everything you need for about $30 at a good hardware store, and put it up in an hour.

Variations on that theme are a little more attractive, and a little more expensive. But the newest intruder defenses, as seen on Cheddar, are much more complex. They go in the floor just inside the door, and require more skill to install. One of them apparently involves cutting out part of the floor.

Nothing smaller than a rhinoceros could get through these things, it seems.

At least one of them is advertised as being applicable to school safety. I’m not sure, however, whether an impenetrable door barricade is better than a boring old door lock with an inside thumb latch in an environment in which the occupants are known to enjoy such practices as pulling fire alarms when there is no fire.

Many of the people who would most logically benefit from these better barricades are individuals on the chancy side of the law. Maybe they want to slow down the police long enough to stow their drugs in their sofa safes.

One of the videos actually shows a man dressed in a police uniform ineffectually using a police-issue breaching tool to try to defeat the thing.

Or, maybe, they want these barricades to protect themselves from those who want to take what they have when they can’t depend on the cops or the insurance companies to protect them. That includes drugs, money from drugs, and illicit gambling and the proceeds from that.

I surmised something along these lines years ago, when I was a young cabdriver, and Crazy Johnny the dispatcher called me up to the office. (Johnny used to say, “Don’t call me crazy. I’m not crazy, and I have the papers to prove it,” referring to the forms he received upon release from a local institution. “But how about you?”)

At the office, he said, “Give this envelope to Junior. Here’s his address. When you get there, tell me on the radio and I’ll call him to open the door.”

I had heard that Junior was a neighborhood bookie. I expected to find a small, pale, nervous guy sitting alone in a studio apartment with multiple telephones, and a metal box with betting slips made of “flash paper” that could be instantly ignited upon arrival of vice cops.

That is not exactly what I found.

On the second floor of a nondescript apartment building, I was stunned to see the biggest, baddest residential door in northeastern Illinois. My first thought was to wonder how such an enormous thing could exist there without bringing down the wall to which it was attached, and plunging through the floorboards.

It was about seven feet wide, and made entirely of steel, with rows of great rivets all over the thing. I pounded on the steel, but I doubted I was heard. It was like punching the hull of a battleship.

Eventually, the door slid to the side, revealing about five inches of the interior. I could see a giant human face scowling from near the top. “What do you want?” rolled down from almost seven feet above the floor, booming out over rhythm and blues.

My attention was divided, however, between this behemoth and what I saw through the crack: several young women dancing in shimmery clothes, in the middle of the afternoon.

I was hoping to be invited in, because I like dancing.

“Here’s John’s money,” I told Junior with a smile, and he took it and simultaneously slammed his mighty door. I barely got my hand out in time.

Junior and I would eventually become friends, but he never did let me into that apartment.

Gary Wright, before he was my friend, was a news source. He was the first cop to tell me, a no-account college student crime reporter, the truth about the job.

He looked and moved like a sailor, in jeans and ill-fitting shirts. He walked with long strides that didn’t necessarily go in the direction he was heading in, as if he was trying to navigate a pitching deck. He had thick, unruly brown hair that was marginally contained by a watch cap.

He usually didn’t use a holster. He stuck his little revolver in his waistband, and it seemed to stay there without slipping — much — because he thickly wrapped the handle with old rubber bands.

One of his pals made him tell me the story, though it didn’t take much coaxing.

“When I was in uniform, we were always trying to bust this guy for pot,” he said. “This was in the days when pot was a big deal. This goof probably had all of an ounce or two at any one time.

“Whenever we would go there, we’d knock on the door, and he’d flush the stuff down the toilet. Then go back and get another warrant for next time.

“I don’t know how many times this happened. One day I was walking over there in plainclothes, and I saw an empty egg box out by the curb. I was inspired! I picked it up and went to the door.”

Gary grinned, and pantomimed putting a box under his arm and tipping his head as if he were looking through a door window.

“I knocked and yelled, ‘Leonard the Egg Man,’ and the guy says, ‘Oh, OK,’ and he opens the door.”

“We relieved him of his ma-ri-jua-na,” Gary said, relishing the word.

There were no such people as egg men. Some milkmen sold eggs, but when they came to the door, they said “Milk.”

All it took was the smile in Gary’s voice to get the guy to open the door for a service he had never heard of.

So remember, no matter how much you spend on a door barricade, it’s too much if you open the door for the guy who says he wants to check for leaks. Or Leonard the Egg Man.


Get your free subscription of the Cook County digital edition






— Leavitt: Opening doors with just a smile —