I have never in my life met anyone like Paul Dailing. This one is for him, and I’ve been waiting years to write it. Let me tell you why.
I’ve known Paul for at least 10 years now. We met as reporters for rival papers, but in my experience that rivalry never really trickled down to the reporters themselves. I was and am good friends with people I met while working for companies bent on destroying one another. Paul’s recollection of the start of our friendship matches up with mine: we were both covering some event on a snowy day at Fermilab, where I would one day go on to work, and I gave him a ride across the grounds.
I didn’t know at that time, of course, how many interests we shared, or that I was in the presence of one of the most restlessly creative individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Sometime before 2010 we started working at the same newspaper, and then I followed him to work for an online news organization that – at least while I was there – didn’t quite live up to its own lofty ambitions. I knew at the time it would be my last journalism job, and in 2012 I made the jump to science communication.
Also in 2012, Paul Dailing launched a project called 1,001 Chicago Afternoons. Based on a 1920s newspaper column by Ben Hecht, 1,001 Chicago Afternoons set out to do what it says in the title: tell 1,001 stories about the city of Chicago. (This is one of our differences: I could never live in a city, let alone love one the way Paul loves Chicago.) Three times a week, Paul would share another beautifully written anecdote, musing or observation about life in the windy city.
Sometimes, these pieces would take my breath away. He’s such a good writer it kills me. Whenever I’d post his stuff on my social media channels, I’d introduce it the same way: “Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Dailing.” I’m not sure how or why I started doing that, but to me it became a way of saying that his work deserves a wider audience. Seriously, just take a browse through his archive. I’ll wait here.
Anyway, given his thrice-weekly pace, I knew it wouldn’t be too long before Paul caught up to my output, and so I figured out, years before he got there, the exact week that he and I would post a column with the same number. That number turned out to be 868, and Paul remembered when he got there, in December of 2017. Not only did he remember, he wrote me into his project, vowing to hunt me down, destroy me and drink my salty tears. (He also said some kinder things.)
At the time I suggested that I would win the long game, that he would stop at 1,001 while I would keep on plugging, and eventually, the tables would be turned. And now we’re here. This is Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. column number 1,001. Next week I will post number 1,002 and surpass Paul, and I don’t know if he’s expecting this little tribute in turn, but I thought it was only fair. And I would totally hunt and destroy him now, if not for the global pandemic keeping me in my house.
So my only other option is to say nice things about him. Let’s start by noting that while, as of next week, I may have written more columns than Paul, I have never written better than him.
He was a creative and joyous presence in the newsroom, sneaking jokes in past the editors, but his blog is where his true love of words can be found. It was often funny – here’s a list of Chicago’s recent mayoral candidates set to “Yakko’s World,” from Animaniacs – but it was just as often an angry, bitter cry for justice, both local and global. Mainly, though, it was about people and place, observed with a keen eye and an empathetic heart.
And sometimes, it was about why writers write. That’s one of my favorites, one that practically bursts with the joy and delight of putting one word after another. And here’s a companion piece, about the reasons to keep some stories to ourselves. There’s a ton of insight in both of these pieces, and I’ve come back to them a lot over the years since Paul wrote them.
I definitely admire the way Paul always pushes people to be better. People in power, of course – he’s the guy who wrote and hosted a Chicago Corruption Walking Tour, after all – but not just them. By pushing himself to be a better writer and a better person, which you can see throughout his project, he does the same for others. He’s made me stop and think about what I value, and how I express it, more than a few times. I’m as grateful for that as I am for the times we’ve hung out and watched Doctor Who or argued about superheroes.
I’m sad to say that in the nearly three years I have spent catching up to him, our lives have drifted even farther apart. He has a lovely family now – the birth of his son coincided with the end of his column – and we live just far enough apart that we haven’t seen each other in many years now. I hope we rectify that soon. In his piece from 2017, he described us as “two friends from afar who type too damn much,” and I cannot think of a better way to put it. I’m thankful to him for being kind to me in print three years ago, and for all the kindness in person and online for the past decade-plus.
Oh, and in four days, Paul’s gonna drop this thing. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m excited. And no doubt, when I post about it online, I will introduce it the way I’ve introduced his odd brilliance for years:
Ladies and gentlemen, Paul Dailing.
See you in line Tuesday morning.