unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Mystery Hitchhikers Revealed!

phil 6When I picked up two hitchhikers last Friday at 75th and Stony Island, I made several snap judgments:  one guy had a sign that said “West Lafayette” so I assumed they were Purdue University engineering students.  I assumed they were undergrads (who else would be scrimping by hitchhiking) and I assumed they were Americans.  I was wrong on all counts.

But I was right about the “positive vibe” that I perceived and that they posed no threat to yours truly.  I had also hoped that they would be good highway companions and that they were!  So who were they?

Antoine is French; he’s from a village in Britanny in northwest France.  George is Chinese and is from Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China. They are not engineering students and they are not undergraduates.

phil 5The two are part of an entrepreneurship program that is sponsored by three universities, one in France, one in China, and Purdue.  Antoine and George have known each other since the program first started last August; each has been out in the workforce.  The Purdue leg of the program runs through August.  They were on their way to West Lafayette after spending several days seeing the sights in Chicago. Phil blog

We had a far-ranging two-hour discussion on I65; topics included the origins of the interstate highway system, the Constitution’s separation of powers, the NRA and the political makeup of Congress.  The low point for me was when I asked George if he had any siblings; he literally did not know the meaning of the term.  When I explained what it meant he laughed and said, “Remember China?  One child policy?  I’m the one child!”  Duh.  (By the way, their English was excellent.)

phil 4We talked about stereotypes, too.  When I asked Antoine if he had been to the Art Institute, he laughed and said, “Not every French person likes art!”

It was as pleasant a drive as I’ve ever had.  They accepted an invitation to come back to Chicago as my guests sometime this summer.  George sent me the photos on this blog, including the one of his hometown’s historic and picturesque “West Lake” area. Phil 2

I sincerely hope that the opportunity to pick up hitchhikers never, ever presents itself again.  Because I now know that I am dumb enough to take it.  And the happier for it.

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Would You Have Picked Up This Hitchhiker? (Part Two)

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I have made at least one hundred trips to Indianapolis by taking Lake Shore Drive to Stony Island to the Skyway and have never seen a hitchhiker in the city portion of this route.  Ever.

So I was truly shocked when I saw the young man above holding a sign that said “West Lafayette.”  I drove past him but quickly glanced back and saw what appeared to be a second person with him.  Person two also had a large backpack and was engaged in a conversation with a passerby.

Now the drive to Indianapolis — as some of you may know — is pretty dull.  Additionally, some things were weighing on me so I thought maybe some on-the-road company would help.  So I drove around the block to get one more reading on the duo and here’s what I concluded in a split second when I came back around to the corner and saw them again:

  • They sure looked like college students
  • In fact, they looked like they could be geeky Purdue engineering students (says I, the Indiana University grad!)
  • They had the requisite student backpacks
  • They put out a positive vibe

So in an instant — and going strictly on my gut — I honked and waved for them to get in.  They looked surprised, then happy and when they got in one laughed and said, “That woman I was talking to just said we should go somewhere else to hitchhike because no one would ever pick us up here!”

Phil 3Phil 2

But these young men were not what they appeared to be or at least, what I assumed them to be.  Not by a long shot.  Tomorrow:  their identities revealed.

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Would You Have Picked Up This Hitchhiker? (Part One)

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As a college student, I hitchhiked a lot.  In fact, the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I hitchhiked from Chicago to California and back, and consider the experience one of the highlights of my youth.  And I was happy to pick up hitchhikers, too, and never had a bad experience either as the driver or the passenger.  There was always a sense of excitement about what the person might be like and the prospect of having an interesting traveling companion for a while.

But it had literally been decades since I had stuck out my thumb or picked up someone who had.

On Friday, I took the day off to drive to Indianapolis to see relatives; my wife had gone the day before and I was joining her.  I’ve probably made this trip at least a hundred times and always take Lake Shore Drive to Stony Island, get on the Skyway and then connect to I65.

In all those times, I have never, ever, seen a hitchhiker anywhere on that route.  So on Friday, I was almost dumbstruck to see a hitchhiker standing on the corner of Stony Island and 75th, just a couple of blocks from the entrance to the Skyway.  But there he was.

Tomorrow: the decision I made and the mystery of who took the above picture.  (It wasn’t me and it wasn’t staged.)

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Do You Have a Question for Phil Jackson?

We are doing a taped interview with former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson tomorrow afternoon, Thursday, May 23, and I am soliciting viewer questions.  Do you have a question you’d like me to pose to the man who helped bring Chicago six NBA championship rings?  Questions about Michael v. Kobe v. LaBron?  Questions about his time in Chicago?  About Pippen, Kukoc, and any of the other notables from those championship years?  He has a new book out called Eleven Rings–The Soul of Success.  If you have an inquiry you’d like us to make to the acclaimed “Zenmaster”, please send it to me as a “comment.”  Thanks!  (The interview will air some time next week.)

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Not All Celebs Are Created Equal!

We had acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma on the program last night.  He’s in town to participate in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s RIVERS festival.   Also with him was Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s vice president for artistic planning.

I bet if most Americans had to name a famous cellist, the name most people would come up with would probably be Yo-Yo Ma.  Agree?

One of the benefits of this job is that I occasionally get to meet famous people of accomplishment.  But it’s risky to meet someone whose work you admire.  What if he or she turns out to be a jerk, prickly or full of themselves?  Then it becomes harder to like the person’s work and you’re deprived of that pleasure.

I won’t mention names, but I have encountered a few people of renown whose work has lost some of its luster after I met them in person.  (I know–I should be able to separate the art from the artist!)

This is a roundabout way of saying that in person, Yo-Yo Ma is gracious, friendly, personable and downright charming.  When you combine his human decency and good manners with a sharp mind and blazing talent–it’s no wonder he’s having a remarkable career and is in such demand.  There’s an old adage in business:  “People like doing business with people they like.”   I bet that’s true in any field, including music.

So go ahead and listen to Yo-Yo Ma’s music anytime.  Your pleasure should be enhanced knowing that underneath that sumptuous music is a great guy!  Here’s the interview in case you missed it:

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Popping the Presidential “Bubble”

U.S. News and Word Report White House correspondent Ken Walsh was on last night talking about his new book, Prisoners of the White House–The Isolation of America’s Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership.  It is a fascinating account of how easy it is for presidents to lose touch with how everyday Americans think, act and live.

Starting with FDR, he breaks presidents into groups of who was able to stay in touch and who wasn’t.  He gives high marks to FDR, Truman, Reagan, Clinton and Obama.  Low marks go to LBJ, Nixon, Carter and the Bushes.

He notes that it takes an almost heroic effort to stay in touch and that a president has to use several avenues, including input from the first spouse.  But he writes that it’s hard to give a president tough feedback, and that it’s common for an underling to promise to give the boss straight talk and then quiver in his presence–particularly in the intimidating setting of the Oval Office.

It’s a far cry from the days of Lincoln when practically anybody could walk right into the White House and talk to the President.  Poor Abe only had two rooms to himself (and I assume one of them was the Lincoln bedroom!)

See what Walsh had to say about the influence of Valerie Jarrett and what he calls the president’s gaggle of “idolizers” who may not always level with him by watching the full interview:

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Jury Duty!

Last week, I had the first-time-ever experience of criminal jury duty.  It was a case of retail theft.  The trial started at about 10:00 am and lasted several hours.  Some lessons if you’re on trial:

  • Never, ever even think about stealing something from a big box store.  The store that was victimized in our case has 30 cameras running and key moments were captured and shown to the jury.
  • That pleasant-looking person standing close to you may very well be the store’s security person who has seen every trick in the book that a shoplifter has ever tried–or thought about trying.
  • Even the best defense lawyer can be of little use to you if you intentionally walk out of a store without paying for something.
  • Dress up a bit.  Meet the jury at least halfway in terms of appearance.
  • If the jury deliberates for less than a few minutes — probably not a good sign.

If you’re a juror:

  • Some of your fellow jurors are people you would never have encountered otherwise, but could probably become good friends if given the chance.
  • Enjoy the experience of having people stand up for you when you and the other jurors walk into the courtroom.  Makes you feel downright presidential!


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The Guest Who Gave Me Nightmares (Revealed)

First, my apologies for not getting this out faster.  I was on jury duty this week and that threw my schedule out of whack.

But, back to answer my earlier post about the guest who literally gave me nightmares.  Good guess, “Thomas H.”  You were right!  It was movie director William Friedkin.  Not that he wasn’t gracious, engaging and professional when he was a guest–Friedkin was all those things.  But he was responsible for literally giving me nightmares by directing the 1973 movie The Exorcist.

That movie not only scared the stuffing out of me when I saw it, it gave me nightmares afterwards.  To this day I cannot watch any movies that deal with the devil, possession, etc.  And I blame Chicago’s very own (and one-time WTTW employee) William Friedkin.  Here’s that interview; one of the questions I ask him is if the movie actually scares him.

And one more piece of unfinished business.  In an earlier post, I alluded to something happening during my interview with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor–something that had never happened before during any interview.  The answer:  she shook my hand during the interview.  She was talking about the tradition on the high court of all the justices shaking hands before a session and was illustrating the human connection that comes from that gesture.

There.  All caught up.

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The Guest Who Gave Me Nightmares

I have not kept track of how many guests I have interviewed over the course of my career.  I’m guessing the number is in the thousands.  The vast majority have been professional, prepared and not problematic.  That’s not to say there haven’t been many guests who have been challenging and even contentious interview subjects, but seldom beyond the bounds of what’s considered appropriate in the context of a robust encounter.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of guests have not caused me excessive stress before, during or after an interview.  They’ve caused me to diligently prepare, to focus and to work–yes, but extreme stress or anxiety?  Hardly ever.

Only one guest has actually given me nightmares, real nightmares.  The kind that have really scared the dickens out of me.  And I interviewed that person recently.  In the next post, I’ll reveal the culprit’s name!  (Bonus points if you can guess who.)

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