Scores of people—including President Obama and damn near every reporter in town—are letting the world know how much they loved Carlos Hernandez Gomez, what a sad and absurd shock it is that he's gone at just 36, and why it was impossible not to be forever touched by his spirit and humor after you encountered it.
But he's worth every single word and thought, so in his honor I'm queuing up the soundtrack to Superfly—Carlos loved both Curtis Mayfield and blaxploitation flicks—so I can add my amen to all of it.
I was one of Carlos's colleagues and editors at The Chicago Reporter back in the early 2000s, but the fact that we worked for the same news organization was incidental—the man was so energetic, friendly, and funny that it's not an overstatement to say that over the last decade he became friends with everybody on the political beat in Chicago, both journos and pols. You crossed paths with him once and came away his pal.
It was impossible not to. He loved politics and he loved Chicago, and he was brilliant at analyzing and ridiculing the inanities of this place.
He was wonderfully honest. Back at the Reporter he introduced himself to people in part by confessing that he still lived at home. "But there's nothing unusual about a Puerto Rican man living with his mother," he informed us all. When he did move into his own place, I was among those he sweet-talked into helping. I recall hours of packing and then carrying boxes full of Beatles memorabilia, books on Chicago politics, and films like The Mack, scenes of which he would quote from memory. He was a huge fan of big talent and big personalities, especially when they were, in his mind, hilariously flawed. Among his favorite characters was Screamin' Jay Hawkins, who in addition to writing the amazing "I Put A Spell On You" was also known to have fathered at least 55 children.
That same sensibility is what made him a terrific journalist. As he moved on from the Reporter to Chicago Public Radio and then CLTV, Carlos's huge personality and irreverence sometimes rattled his supervisors. He wasn't the type to break news so much as explain and illustrate it it by letting his readers, listeners, and viewers know why he thought a politician was the real deal or a real loser. As recently as last summer, when he and I had a blast talking politics with Richard Steele on WBEZ's "Eight Forty-Eight," he declared on the air that a listener sympathetic to Mayor Daley was "on crack." This sort of thing is considered a no-no in an era when we media types are supposed to be encouraging audience participation, but Carlos's comment cut to the point, both for that caller and the other thousands of voters who've allowed the mayor to get away with corruption and waste for 20 years.
Some journalists stay informed by digging through documents or spending hours on the phone engaging in formal interviews. Not Carlos. He did his homework, to be sure, but the man was an old-school reporter. He dressed like he was a member of the Rat Pack, answered his phone by barking out "Hernandez!" and gathered information by chatting everybody up. Carlos was fundamentally a talker. He could get an empty seat laughing—or an empty bar stool at his beloved Billy Goat Tavern. Not that he was ever near one; people gathered to him. He won their confidence by asking about their children, oversharing a bit about his own personal problems, rallying them to the cause of Puerto Rican independence, and doing dead-on impressions in "ethnic" dialects—of all sorts—that made certain stuffy types cringe and everybody else bust up and then reflect, since his targets were always leaders who had abused their power and shut out the little guys but would end up getting theirs because they weren't nearly as smart as they thought. Nothing to him was quite as amusing and just as a crooked politician getting sent up by the feds.
Carlos was open with his hundreds and hundreds of friends about his ups and downs with cancer, but he was so insistent that he would beat it that I was shocked to learn last night that he'd died. It is a vast understatement to say it doesn't make any sense to me, and I feel horrible for his wife and family.
But since this is Carlos we're talking about, it seems most appropriate to sing a little bit of "Theme from Shaft" ("Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man? ... Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about.... You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother....") and then get back to work. Hernandez set a high standard for the rest of us.