How do you capture a city like Chicago? How do you properly deconstruct a place that has given us Oprah AND Al Capone AND the Cubs, a land of boundless contradiction that seems dead-set on defying one’s expectations? You can’t, at least not easily. All you can do…the only option, really…is to write a bunch of random stuff and hope it makes some shred of logical and artistic sense. Fingers crossed!
Chicago is, so far as I can tell, the only city in the Midwest. This observation is based less on categorical evidence than the specific route I took to get there, but locals confirmed as much — it’s really all there is for hundreds of miles. With that title comes a great deal of responsibility, then, and an “all things for all people” quality that permeates every corner of the Windy City. I mean EVERY city has that — New York and its Variety Cafes first and foremost in America — but the relative smallness of Chicago makes it even more apparent.
KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
First off, everyone is just nice. And not in the “I literally can’t think of another adjective to use here” sense, but in the congenial, open-armed, “please to meet you, stranger!” sense. The weird sense. New Yorkers, have you ever once been smiled at on the subway (in a way that wasn’t a precursor to unadvised sexual relations and/or stalking)? In Chicago, they do nothing BUT smile on this thing called the El, which I think is short for “elated.” Then you get off the El, and they KEEP smiling. Like they’re HAPPY or something?! It’s completely off-putting, as in the first scenes of a zombie movie — realizing everyone but you is infected (in this case with joie de vive, and not an undead curse) and it’s all you can do to put your head down and keep on walking. When will you stop being so GODDAMN CHIPPER, Chicago?
One thing Chicagoans should be undeniably upbeat about is their women, who bring a corn-fed farm-freshness to city life. Where New York is all “leggings” this and “coke” that, Chi-Town ladies are no-nonsense as they make their way around the city. All of the women I observed on the street and in McDonald’s — and various other dining establishments — could easily be brought home to mom, and probably help chop firewood (while still achieving their social and professional aspirations). More to report the next time I’m in Chicago and finally talk to a few of them!
Those of you thinking of making a trip to Chicago would be wise to prepare yourselves for a dining experience so fatty, so cholesterol-heavy, that post-meal exercise is just a laughable endeavor. You won’t work it off, whether it’s (mediocre, IMHO) burgers at the Billy Goat Tavern or emasculating hot dogs at Al’s #1 Italian Beef. There is simply TOO MUCH that is TOO GOOD. Popcorn lover? One bag of Garrett’s CaramelCrisp popcorn — even a small, which by East Coast standards qualifies as jumbo — is enough to last the entire two-day trip down to New Orleans. Sticky hands being par for the course.
Throw food, farmer’s daughters, and Midwestern congeniality into a bag, shake it up, throw it off a bridge, then dry out the contents in the microwave and you’re left with the fourth pillar of Chicago culture: comedy*. The most obvious — and best — example is Second City, which for 50 years has churned out some of America’s finest improvisers and comics. Their alumni list, which includes Bill Murray, Tina Fey, and Gilda Radner, is to comedy what Yale’s is to presidents: very nearly the only game in town. If you think someone is funny (…someone who isn’t an immediate relative, or your boyfriend), there’s a STRONG CHANCE they studied at Second City. My friend snagged tickets for us to see one of the company’s current shows, “Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies.” How good was it? So fantastic, so expertly conceived and performed that to write “spoiler alert: it was awesome!” (as is Lifting Fog’s wont) would be an egregious and disgusting insult to the craft. These guys were hands down the funniest crew of funny people I’ve ever seen, and the cherry on an already great — and metaphorically awkward — Chicago sundae. GO SEE THEM.
* Only comedy that’s not desperately trying to be funny, like Lifting Fog, but genuinely hilarious and original!
Chicago was the first and last honest to God city on my trek across (and down, and up, and…) the country, at least by traditional standards, which means that everything afterwards ditched the Epcot schizophrenic approach in favor of more one-word summations (like “BBQ,” “Music,” “Grand Canyon”). I’d manage to fit tons of culture in the following two weeks — enough to make your HEAD EXPLODE, fam — but always missing that special urban (or urban fusion) sauce that you can’t find outside city limits. Farewell, Chicago, you saucy minx.