CHICAGO — My nephew Danny lived in Chicago for a long time and has since moved to Colorado. He recently texted me a picture of a shirt. “Was inspired to buy this t-shirt yesterday after a comment from a gentleman working at Cabela’s.”
I immediately thought about buying one for myself, but realized it would be a strange thing to wear here in Chicago.
But after years, now, of feeling a sad bewilderment at the gathering American hostility toward what I consider to be America’s most American city — I let myself feel the truculence of that t-shirt. And then I wondered if there’s something more constructive that I might say to the gentleman working at Cabela’s, who casually and confidently disparaged Chicago to someone he didn’t know.
I don’t want to address the political candidates and TV propagandists who have campaigned over the last 15 years to portray Chicago as the epicenter of every type of American filth, from political corruption to community organizing. As a writer, I know why they’ve done that. They want the country mouse vote and the suburban vote, so they need to tell an urgent ongoing story of urban wickedness. “American cities” are a bland composite character; “Chicago” makes a more vivid villain.
This Independence Day weekend, I want to talk to Americans who heard that story so many times that they’ve come to think unthinkingly of Chicago as a symbol of everything wrong with the country they love.
I want to talk to the gentleman who works at Cabela’s.
I’m an Ohio kid.
I moved to Chicago right out of Kent State University, knowing little about this place besides the confounding fact that a baseball stadium sat smack in the middle of a plain brick city neighborhood. I’d witnessed this improbable arrangement on WGN cable TV for years, but then I’d seen the Land of Oz on TV too. I had to see this with my own eyes. I also figured vaguely that Chicago would be a better place to pursue a writing career than Northeast Ohio.
That was about the extent of my expectations. And then the week I moved here, a hole in a freight tunnel caused the Chicago River to flood into the basements of every building in the Loop, which sounded a lot like something that would happen in Cleveland.
But over the next 20 years, I discovered Chicago’s wonders: The architectural beauty of its downtown, the homely permanence of the neighborhoods. The shocking poverty and insistent segregation. (You could drive down Austin Boulevard on the Chicago’s western border, and see white people on one side of the street and Black people on the other. You still can.) The dramatic history of the city, so short and knowable you can hold it all in your head at once, as many Chicagoans do. And the people of the place: wise firefighters and eccentric intellectuals, politicians and fixers, mensch neighbors, saintly (and hilarious) teachers, good lawyers, bad salespeople, perfect jamokes, cops’ kids, super-heroic tuck-pointers and roofers and plumbers and — oh yes — assholes of every colorful kind. I was once loudly called a “jagoff” for hesitating too long at a four-way stop to suit the motorist sensibilities of an 80-year-old woman.
In my twenties, I made many great friends in Chicago, and identified some heroes, too — writers, mostly, who explained this place to me, and in the process helped me understand America, too. In my thirties I got to meet some of these people, including the greatest of them, Studs Terkel. Through his books of oral history, Terkel had introduced the idea that ordinary Americans had profound things to say, if you would only ask, and listen. “I never knew,” one of his interview subjects once told him, listening to her own voice for the first time on his tape recorder, “I felt that way.”
Eventually I also wrote stories of ordinary people, for Chicago newspapers and magazines: a blacksmith, a hairpiece maker, an aging ballerina, a middling standup comic, a shady suburban mayor. One day, discovered that a house next door that was about to be torn down was one of the five oldest in the city. I led a years’ long neighborhood campaign to save it, meeting a hundred great people in the the process — and I wrote about that.
Eventually, I was so crazy about this place and the life I had made here, that my father started teasingly introducing me at Ohio cocktail parties as “the only one of my children who grew up on the South Side of Chicago.”
But during those years, I also spent more time than your average Chicagoan in the country — on backroads in Illinois, playing in impossibly obscure golf tournaments at nine-hole courses bordered by cornfields in places like Galva, Kewaunee and Monmouth, on what was affectionately called the “Manure Tour.” Later, I took long trips my motorcycle, staring bovinely down those straight, flat Illinois county roads looking for the next clump of trees and water tower, where I could slow down and glimpse how other people lived. Sometimes, I would ride to the back of a town cemetery, lie down in the grass and take a nap.
So maybe more than other Chicagoans, I was in regular touch with the suspicion with which we were regarded from people on the outside — as if we were from not another place, but another planet. Or another country, anyway.
People heard I was from Chicago, and they didn’t ask any more questions after that. Reporting a magazine story, I once spent two weeks in the bosom of a small family business in Ottawa, Illinois — working with them, eating with them, drinking with them — gathering the history, finding the rhythm and the daily purpose in their lives. In that whole time, no one asked me a single thing about my life in the city. It was disturbing at first. But I came to realize this studious lack of even courteous returned curiosity was not the product of any particular self-involvement; but because, where would they start? If you met a talking caribou, what’s the first question you would ask?
But that communication gap wasn’t about Chicago in particular, it was about cities in general. And it wasn’t antipathy as much as it was truly benign ignorance and fear about city life, which seemed so distant, and strange. I once had a waitress at a greasy spoon in Mendota, Ill. reassure me when she found out I was from Chicago, “Chicago’s not so bad.” She said you just needed to know a few tricks, like never giving homeless people money. Because if you give money to one, they’ll gather around you by the dozens, she said. “Give them toothpaste or soap,” she advised. “Anything but money!”
But the first moment it occurred to me that anyone might hate Chicago specifically was almost 15 years ago, on another motorcycle ride — a return trip from an epic round trip to Nova Scotia, with an old college pal, from Cleveland.
After dark, we pulled into a gas station in Warren, Pennsylvania looking for directions to a local hotel. The young attendant asked where we were from. “I like Cleveland,” he told Tom approvingly, “because it reminds me of Western P.A.”
“But I don’t like Chicago,” he added, glowering at me.
Why not? I was startled.
“BHO!” he said.
I looked at him blankly.
“Barack Hussein Obama!” he yelled. “The President!”
I was astonished — first, to hear a powerful political opinion offered in the exchange of driving directions, and then to realize that Barack Obama’s association with Chicago would sully this great midwestern American city, in the eyes of a middle American.
I’ve traveled abroad and listened to a lot of anti-American sentiment from Canadians and Europeans. Some of it, I’ve even agreed with — especially during the war in Iraq.
But to hear an American condemn Chicago — that was somehow much more wounding to me. The thought of it hurts me still. And I’ve felt equally defenseless against a thousand insults that kept up during Obama’s presidency and ratcheted up during Trump’s.
If I’m open to foreigners’ critiques of America, why so sensitive about Americans’ contempt for Chicago?
Because my love for Chicago is just about the most patriotic feeling I have. For me, loving Chicago is the same as loving America. Everything good that ever happened in America happened in Chicago, and sometimes it happened in Chicago first, and probably happens in Chicago still. Everything bad, too. All of Chicago’s virtues are American virtues, and all of Chicago’s vices are American vices — not separated, just concentrated. And Chicago’s vices and virtues are as extreme as its seasons — just like the nation its railroads tied together for the first time, and that its airports and roads and waters and people hold together still.
All respect to every other great city in America, but any one of them could evaporate — New York and Los Angeles being arguable exceptions — and you’d still be able to see America the same way, still be able to know it as you’ve always known it before. But try to imagine a modern America without Chicago holding down the center. As much as you may wish you could, you can’t.
If I wanted to show a foreigner America in one day, I’d show them Chicago.
I’d like to show a lot of Americans around here, too.
To the gentleman from Cabela’s: If I had a few days with you here in Chicago, how could I make you feel differently about this place?
First off, I wouldn’t have you come on a weekend, I’d have you come during the week. And I wouldn’t waste my time dazzling you with the skyline or taking you to cultural things, because that’s not why I love this place either. Though we might just take that Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise down the Chicago River, because this is a tour of American greatness itself. And, there’s a bar on the boat.
Speaking of bars, we’ll visit a lot of them while you’re here. We’ll visit my corner tavern, the J&M, where your fourth beer is usually free, just like at home. There’s nothing more country than a Chicago corner tavern. (If you decide to stay the weekend, we’ll look in on another corner bar, in Pilsen, where Mexican laborers drink Modelos and shoot pool on Saturday afternoon, in the sunniest, most guilt-free room you’ve ever stood in. And what the hell, let’s go up to the Green Mill, where Capone used to drink, and catch some music. I’ll tell you the the story of the history of that neighborhood, Uptown, which only 50 years ago included such a large population of Appalachians, it was called “Hillbilly Heaven.”)
At some point, we should also look in on my teacher wife’s elementary school art room, in West Humboldt Park, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Not to convince you that things aren’t fucked up here. Rather, to remind you that — whatever you think of gun laws, whatever you believe about the causes of crime and their solutions (and I didn’t bring you here to change your mind about any of that, or even to discuss it) — people in poor neighborhoods are more than statistics with tear ducts. Children, especially — but teachers and parents, too. There are some ferociously talented and committed people pouring their hearts’ blood into some very tough problems — and some beautiful kids, benefitting from it.
But more important than your liking and admiring all the things I like in Chicago, you’re going to like me. Living my whole adult life in Chicago has helped me become — or at least allowed me to remain — enthusiastic, curious and good-humored. And you’re going to like my friends: The people I’ve worked with, my motorcycle buddies, the guys I play baseball with, my neighbors and all the other dozens and dozens of fine and funny and smart and wise Chicagoans I’ve come to know and love over the last 30 years of living here.
What’s more, they’ll probably like you, too, because one quality most Chicagoans share is an uncommon general eagerness to want to get to know any person who happens to be standing in front of them — especially if that person has been introduced by a friend.
More than any other American city I’ve ever visited, that’s Chicago.
And of course that’s America, too — or at least the America that you and I were raised to be proud of, in the first place.
These days, I’m more regularly in touch with the America outside Chicago than I’ve been in many years. My daughter just finished her freshman year in college, at Ohio University, in the Appalachian foothill town of Athens.
She plays on the soccer team there, and her teammates are mostly suburban Columbus, Cincinnati, Toledo kids. When they asked her where she was from, she said, “Chicago.” And they said, “Yeah, but what suburb?” No, she said. “Chicago.” Like, Chicago Chicago? Yes, she said. Chicago! Perhaps they didn’t know it was an Onion headline that read, “Chicago Air Now 80 Percent Bullets.”
I want to bring their wide eyes here — not for a weekend, but for a year! I know they’d leave feeling just as at home in this place as they do with my daughter.
I don’t need everyone to love Chicago. I don’t work for the tourist board here. The winters and the traffic are hell and city life is not for everyone.
But I do want Americans to not to hate Chicago. Because whether they know it or not, Americans who hate Chicago hate America itself — in the name of loving it.
And that’s no way to feel — especially on the Fourth of July.