CHICAGO — For people of extreme girth — and we know who we are — it’s often a struggle to know exactly how fat we’ve become because, well, conventional bathroom scales simply won’t hold us.
Jack Cheney, then owner of Abacus Scale Co. of McKinley Park, delivered the scale at the request of Chicago leaders who had buckled under pressure from angry fatties who complained they were unfairly excluded from using the previous City Hall “people-weigher” because it maxed out at 300 pounds, according to Cheney's son, John, who now runs the company.
That gift allowed Chicagoans — petite ladies and fat slobs alike — equal access to an accurate scale and, in some cases, public humiliation.
But that fairness didn’t last. Like a politician, the scale buckled under pressure applied by the big-and-tall set. For the last few years, the scale didn't work for anyone who weighed more than 190 pounds, longtime city workers say.
It wasn’t until December when a nice lady from the Law Department who headed up an annual charity fundraiser for a West Side women’s shelter decided it was time to stop using bake sales, pizza lunches and hot dog days to get donations.
Instead, Toni Farmer embraced the spirit of our mayor’s new “wellness program” — which saves city workers up to $100 a month on health insurance premiums if they at least try to live healthier lives. She raised charity cash by getting co-workers to fork over five bucks for every pound they gained during the holidays.
“People would go to a bake sale and donate money because they didn’t want the added sugar and fat, but they wanted to help,” Farmer said. “So, I decided to try something healthier.”
City workers of significant heft, however, found that not having access to a working heavy-duty scale was a roadblock to participating. That prompted Farmer to ask about getting the City Hall scale fixed.
“Not everyone knew that the scale only worked up to a certain point. So I called the building engineer and asked to have it fixed,” Farmer said. “We wanted to give every one an equal chance to use the scale.”
At first, the city balked at making the fix because Abacus no longer calibrated the scale for free.
Elizabeth Freidheim, a petite city attorney with kindness in her heart, offered to pay for the fix.
“Everybody tries to use the scale, and it was getting pretty annoying,” she said. “It would have been worth it.”
But rather than accept Freidheim’s offer, city officials again sided with the needs of the rotund.
The Fleet and Facility Management Department paid for the $322.50 repair in hopes it would make Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s wellness incentive program more successful.
Farmer’s fundraiser brought in just $80 bucks from co-workers who put on weight over the holidays.
While that wasn’t as much cash as a bake sale would bring it, it likely helped her co-workers stay a little lighter on their feet. And she was OK with that.
City worker Delette Porter-Williams says the now-working scale has helped her keep motivated to shed pounds.
“When I transferred to City Hall in October I weighed 195. Now I weigh 184½. Now, that’s not 185. You can see the half-pound on this scale,” Porter-Williams says. “I’m so glad the scale is back because when you’re feeling heavy you can jump on and see how heavy you are and know you have to do something about it.”
And it’s a habit that seems to be catching on.
Most workday mornings you’ll see folks seek out the scale — which is tucked in a corner near the LaSalle Street entrance — set down their bags, strip off their winter coats and check their weight as curious passersby sneak a peek at how far the needle swings.
After the New Year, the Housing and Economic Development Department launched a weight loss contest. Each contestant pitched in 20 bucks. The “biggest loser” — the one person who sheds the highest percentage of body weight — wins the pot.
Last week, I orchestrated a run-in with Mayor Emanuel — the mastermind of the city’s wellness incentive — as he headed home from work.
Emanuel — who just might be, pound for pound, the fittest big city mayor in America — hopped on the scale.
I spied the needle. But I can’t tell you where it stopped because I foolishly agreed to keep the mayor’s post-Obama inauguration party weight “off the record.”
I'm not sure why the mayor wanted his weight kept secret. Maybe it's because he was wearing a winter suit and shoes — that's at least a couple extra pounds — and he felt it wouldn't be right to knowingly put out inaccurate information to the public. That got me thinking about something former Mayor Richard M. Daley once asked reporters: "What do you want me to do, take my pants off?" The answer, then and now, is, no.
So, if you want to know how much the mayor weighed that day you'll have to ask him yourself. Go ahead, I dare you. (And let me know when you're planning on doing it so I can watch.)
Anyway, as Emanuel stood on the scale, I asked him for his take on city workers who say they're happy to have his wellness incentive — and a working scale at City Hall — to help them battle their personal bulges.
“They should be,” Emanuel said in gruff tone. “It’s good for their health and good for their pocketbook.”
Then, he abruptly stepped off the scale, slipped on his winter overcoat and rushed off into the cold night.
While no one was looking, I stepped on the scale — a machine that actually might help shape up City Hall.
When the needle ... finally ... stopped, I realized a couple things.
I'm twice the man Mayor Emanuel is.
And a man's weight should be private.