The last week I was in Chicago as a Chicago resident I thought I should do a post about what I will miss and what I will not miss about my former city. Today I was reading something and it mentioned the dramas of Samuel Beckett, and an image popped into my head of Francis Guinan storming down the stage at the Steppenwolf Theater with a crazed look on his face and his arms held out in front of him at shoulder width, palms up and slightly pumping. He starred in the Steppenwolf’s production last year of Beckett’s Endgame. I have no idea if he actually did what I saw him doing in my head in that production, but it imagined real enough to me. Anyway. I miss getting to see plays featuring Francis Guinan—I love that dude. So I was reminded of my list, which is not exhaustive and not ranked in any particular order.
But before the list, I want to say that Chicago is a great city qua city. It has great neighborhoods, lots of theater, lots of sports, and all that. If you want to live in a proper city east of the Mississippi, it’s one of your best options. It’s has fewer assholes than New York, fewer douchebags than the District of Columbia, and fewer Red Sox and Celtics fans than Boston (of course those are gross generalizations, but…) But I have issues with Chicago for climatic and topographic reasons, which are not to be undervalued. I’m from the west (the real west)—my mom’s family has lived in the Pacific Northwest for as long as people have lived in what’s now the United States (in the parlance of Indian law, since “time immemorial”) and my father’s father’s father lived and worked at a brothel in Tombstone during the “gunfight at the OK Corral” era. This is where I want to be. A coworker told me yesterday that this is paradise, and I probably agree.
What I Will Miss About Chicago
(1) Francis Guinan, and to a lesser extent the Steppenwolf generally.
(2) Lou Mitchell’s, a breakfast institution and rightly so. Their eggs are buttery and airy and delicious, and their banana pancakes are even more delicious. Sitting at the bar with old regulars was always an experience that made me feel like a real Chicagoan.
(3) Hopleaf, a good beer bar and restaurant. The beer list was decent—which means excellent by Chicago standards—and the food was good too. I’ll most miss going there probably because I’ll miss listening to my wife talk about how she thought about ordering something else but couldn’t pass up her “execution sandwich” (what she’d want as her final meal if she were on death row), and afterward walking around Andersonville and getting amazing ice cream at George’s Ice Cream and Sweets.
(4) Myopic Books, a madhouse of a used bookstore. Several floors of bookshelves jammed too close together.
(5) The Seminary Co-op and 57th Avenue Books. The Seminary Co-op is probably the best academic bookstore in the country (and because I’m an American I tend to assume that means in the world—I’ve been to the bookstores in Oxford at least and they don’t hold a candle to the Hyde Park shop). 57th Avenue is warmer and less academic. The two together are bliss.
(6) Medici on 57th. After #5 a meal at Medici is always a good decision. The food’s good, but even if it weren’t the feel makes it worth it. Tables and booths with writing all over them give it a slightly dingy surface that has its own charm combined with good lighting or something and it feels warm (I realize I’ve used that word in that way twice in the last few sentences, so what). Plus there are tons of students and academics in there and while sometimes I find the conversations I eavesdrop on to be incredibly irritating, I do like the college feel except to the extent it makes me pine for my youth.
(7) Portillo’s. You don’t actually have to be in Chicago, or even in the Midwest, to enjoy Portillo’s, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to eat there again. Big Beef, hot, dipped, with some of the finest fast food fries around. I really wanted to prefer Al’s Italian Beef for several reasons, most of which are probably not good reasons (Portillo’s is to Al’s what the suburbs are to the city), but I just couldn’t. Portillo’s was my first “beef” (thanks, Mr. Fenner!) and from that point forward that was what a beef should taste like.
(8) Pequod’s Pizza. Very late in my stay Pequod’s became my preferred purveyor of deep-dish pizza. Very delicious. A shout out to Bacino’s too, as my favorite deep-dish place before Pequod’s made its mark. Both places had acceptable beer options, which is good for Chicago.
(9) The Bourgeois Pig. My favorite coffee shop in the city, hands down. Yes, it’s relatively expensive and snobby and whatever, but talk about warm. I also enjoyed a few of their sandwiches very much (Pilgrim’s Progress, mostly). I couldn’t help but smile every time a song from a recording of Les Miserables (I think Broadway cast) popped on in what I assume was shuffle play, which if you went there enough (like I did) you knew happened somewhat regularly. I particularly enjoyed seeing/hearing others in the shop look up and, often, mutter “what the hell?” every time it happened. Here, unlike at Medici, the discussions of students almost always annoyed me and had little to no redeeming value. My wife once commented that such comments were bound to be worse at the Pig because of its proximity to DePaul. I suggested I detected a hint of snobbery and she assured me that it wasn’t snobbery it was just the truth.
(10) The Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and the various other museums. They are way too expensive if you have to pay, but the number of free days/evenings they all had made them all fantastic places to spend a few hours during those free periods.
(11) ParkWest. An excellent music venue. I saw Billy Bragg and Kaki King there.
(13) Kuma’s Corner. There are way too many places that claim or are reported to have the “best burgers” but Kuma’s truly has the best burgers. Truly. The best burger I’ve ever had in my life I had at Kuma’s. Plus they have good beer, good music, and cool art (even if it feels like they are trying way too hard to be hardcore).
(14) Children’s Learning Place, Carver’s first school. I can’t imagine a nicer place to send a pre-k kid (well, actually I can, it would be CLP but in a location like Carver’s current school: on a five acre property removed from everything else, with an orchard and chickens and wild animals and plants all around). It’s hard to imagine nicer and better teachers of toddlers than Mlles Jessica, Arlinda, June, and Gina.
(15) The Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, where I took Letterpress one and two. A beautiful little shop with a bunch of Vandercooks and type of all sizes, styles, and vintages. I never got to take a paper making class there but I bet that’s cool too.
(16) Autumn. The nice days during the fall are some of the nicest you’ll ever find. But see below. Brisk air, changing leaves on the ground; it’s the time when the city feels like it is in its true state.
(17) The Chicago Humanities Festival.
(18) The “bridges smell of chocolate.” I first heard this on This American Life and didn’t really get it. But it is true. At certain times, when the circumstances are right, you do get hit with the distinct smell of chocolate as you drive across certain bridges (I most notice it in the River North area, particularly when entering downtown from the Ohio Street exit off of 90/94).
(19) Its proximity to Michigan.
What I Won’t Miss About Chicago
(1) Wrigley Field. OK, so, unlike everything else that follows I actually don’t dislike Wrigley; it’s a very nice place to watch a baseball game when the weather is nice. I just put it here because I wanted to say that for a place that people call the “world’s largest beer garden” or whatever the beer selection is abysmal.
(2) The traffic. The worst I’ve ever experienced, both the “freeways” and the streets. Also, if I were ruler of Chicago, there would be no stoplights on Lake Shore Drive.
(3) The weather. The summer is worse than the winter. I loathe humidity. There are approximately seven weeks of the year when the weather in Chicago is almost reliably nice, early October to Thanksgiving.
(4) The lack of seawater. The lake does not cut it.
(5) The flatness. I hate flat country, it’s just wrong. No horizon to orient yourself, no rising and falling roads that are interesting to drive. No houses for the soul. Nothing.
(6) The politics. Why is it legal for the mayor and aldermen to stick their name on everything at taxpayer expense? And that’s not even scratching the surface.
(7) The taxes. I’m a tax loving Democrat, but come on. Sales taxes that exceed 11% are insane. Property taxes that make owning even a condo a painful thing, never mind an actual house.
(8) The traffic (and this is coming from someone who spent years driving all over southern California!), and the public transportation is slower than and not nearly as good as many Chicagoans seem to want to admit.
(9) That pedestrians have the right-of-way but are never given it.
(10) The number of bars that affiliate themselves with Michigan State. I mean come on. Maybe I’m overly sensitive but it seems like there are more MSU bars in the city than there are bars that affiliate themselves with all other Big Ten schools combined.
(11) Its proximity to Ohio. You can’t get far enough away.