Friday, April 11, 2008

My Kind of Town

I lived over three years in the Chicago area—Woodridge, actually—and have tried, with diminishing efficiency, to get back as often as possible. It’s been four years since my last trip, and the time has not been kind to my image of the city.

I write a lot of crime fiction set in Chicago, which is the perfect place for crime fiction. The problem is, once you do much research in Chicago’s criminal history, and its ostensibly straight history, one conclusion cannot be avoided: there’s no difference. Maybe New York City’s Tammany Hall era was as corrupt as Chicago has been routinely. Maybe.

Organized crime doesn’t run the city as overtly as in the days of Al Capone, or Tony Accardo and Pat Marcy. It’s also true Chicago has a way of getting things done that, while not unknown elsewhere, has become so entrenched in Chicago as to be part of the culture. Chicago celebrates its criminal past more than any city except Las Vegas, which is not the standard a respectable city wants to maintain.

I’ve learned too much about criminality to romanticize it, so I didn’t look forward to returning as much as I usually do when work took me back this week. It would be nice to see some friends I’ve missed, and four years without an Italian beef from Portillo’s is virtually a life-threatening situation. The plan was to see my buds, eat some beef, get my work done and come home.

That held up until the cab from the airport started driving me past streets I knew too well. My hotel was on West Adams; I was working on South LaSalle. I used to work on West Randolph, so I knew where everything was. All previous disclaimers aside, I felt at home right away. I walked the streets, bought a tee shirt at Blue Chicago, and would have gone to Wrigley Field has I not remembered—just in time—that the Cubs were in Pittsburgh, not the other way round. I enjoyed every second I spent there.

This is no faint praise. I’m a country boy by nature. My childhood home—where my parents still live—had a neighbor on the adjacent property, another across the street. The next house on the other side from the neighbor was half a mile down the road. There were no house behind us for a couple of miles, past a wooded area and the Meadow Gold dairy farm. This is my idea of reasonable population density.

I work in Washington DC every day, and can’t wait to get out of it. I took my daughter to see a photographic exhibit in New York a few years ago, and made it a day trip. There’s something about Chicago, even in the Loop, that’s different. Maybe it’s the freshness of constant rebuilding, or the variety of architecture. More likely it’s the attitude of people all just doing what needs to be done. Chicago calls itself that city that works; its people sure do. Too many of them work in unsavory enterprises, but Chicago is not a place that wants something for nothing.

The weather was typical Chicago April, which is to say Alaskan crabbers wouldn’t want to go out in it, at least not Thursday’s mess of cold, wind, and rain. And I got a head cold worse than I’ve had in years. I’ll be back, though. For the beefs. And the lakefront. Navy Pier. Buckingham Fountain and Ed DeBevic’s. The million little things I didn’t realize I missed until I saw them again.

I just won’t go back on American Airlines.

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