In the summer 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.
Chicago is an important place. If you travel across the United States by train (though the immense distance makes such a journey pointless), you will most likely go through Chicago. It’s a great center of commerce, comedy, and ruthless political corruption, and when my mother’s family immigrated to America, they came to Chicago.
However, neither Sam nor myself had ever been to America’s second city, which to me had remained a source of constant perplexity. Despite being exposed to a myriad of books and films about Chicago, I had never managed to get a feel for the place. In one particularly manic essay, Sarah Vowell claimed that she could point out the whole of American history from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Another commentator on This American Life claimed that the drawbridges of Downtown Chicago smell like chocolate. Stephen Fry called it “a more wonderful and beguiling city,” and one of the greatest in the world. John Hodgman in The Areas of My Expertise took a different tack by claiming authoritatively that Chicago doesn’t exist. And in a moment of unparalleled exuberance, the former blog Bonerparty once published an indecipherable essay simply titled “Nothing Beats Chicago Girls in the Summertime.” 1
From all of this, I deduced two possibilities: First, that Chicago doesn’t actually have much going for it– all this praise could easily have been just the sort of desperate self-aggrandizing patter I’d grown up with in Pasadena. The second possibility was that Chicago is so unlike anywhere else in America, probably the world, that its virtues cannot be described in a sensible manner to someone who has never been there.
But first we had to leave Iowa.
“She’s not a glassblower, is she?”
Sam and I woke up. We both looked at each other and opened our mouths, but found our vocal cords uncooperative. The only available room at the motel was a smoking room, and while there was no smoke to be seen, the smell was overpowering. I couldn’t think.
As a result of the previous night’s pitch-black backcountry ramble, we suddenly found ourselves much further along than planned– further in fact than we had even realized. Chicago was only six hours away, the same drive time from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Once upon a time, that distance seemed soul-crushing; now it was a source for joy.
When Michael Palin visited Hong Kong in Around the World in 80 Days, it was the halfway point of his journey, in honor of which he was invited to a black tie party for which he got a new suit. As Chicago was our halfway point, and I had been made certain promises, I took inspiration: shaving off my modest travel beard, combing my hair, putting on a tie and vest.
Though we’d spent two additional hours driving the previous night, the landscape had changed completely. The lonely plains were gone, here there were woods and rivers, miniature metropolises like the Cedar Rapids and Davenport, and pert little county towns with well-kept Victorian houses and courthouse squares.
It was into one of the latter that we went to lunch, Geneseo, Illinois. When Bill Bryson went across America in The Lost Continent, this was exactly the kind of picture-perfect town he was looking for. Strangely, he had failed utterly to find such a place in his native Midwest– finding the desired spirit to be more alive in the Deep South and New England– but Geneseo certainly looked the part. Sam and I half expected to encounter two random men in suits meandering down the sidewalk like extras in a Jimmy Stewart film, and to our surprise there they were– albeit, older and fatter than your typical actors. They must have been government employees.
We found a little place on the main street and walked in. What we found looked more like a living room than a restaurant. Since Sam and I were planning to spend an additional day in Chicago, we asked the owner if she knew any particular attractions. She turned the question over to her friend, the only other person in the room, who grew up in Naperville.
“Well, if you want deep dish, there’s Giordano’s.”
Sam made a counter offer. “Our friend that we’re staying with is taking us to Harold’s Fried Chicken.”
She smiled politely. Harold’s Fried Chicken is famous for having their counters protected with bulletproof glass. Sam made conversation while I ate silently. The ham sandwich was mediocre, the potato chips mysteriously inedible.
All along the interstate highways, we had been forced to switch lanes or even driving side due to ongoing repavement, but in Illinois the roadwork abruptly stopped. But they could have used some; every spot of asphalt was cracked by a succession of brutal Illinois winters, impossible to imagine in late July.
By the time we reached Minooka, birthplace of Nick Offerman, the landscape was completely obscured by roadside trees. We passed right through the sizable city of Joliet without seeing a single building. But suddenly the trees stopped and we plunged into the worst traffic jam either of us had ever experienced. At this point, the freeway split into “local” and “express” lanes– the express lane was visibly slower– and not knowing what to do, we ended up circling the Loop for an hour before driving back south through gloomy projects.
“This must be where Shotgun Man lived,” Sam murmured.
“Rutger Hauer?” I replied.
“He was this mafia hitman, and he killed dozens of people with a shotgun, and the police never found out who he was, because he was so respected in the community that nobody would give him up.”
I had been picturing a street scene in the late 70s. “When was this?” I asked.
Upon later research, I discovered that Shotgun Man had lived in a completely different part of town.
Dennis lived in Hyde Park, an oasis of plenitude on the South Side anchored by the scattered campus of University of Chicago. For safekeeping, we carried all of our belongings into Dennis’ brownstone. It was slightly hot but tolerable under the canopy of trees. Looking around, I was struck by something from my childhood. The brick buildings, the amiable neighbours chatting on porches. This was the kind of place I grew up seeing on kids’ TV shows like Ghostwriter, which I know was set in Brooklyn, but the spirit of the place was the same.
Looking around I started to notice other things: girls in sundresses and hair in big skyward buns, strolling around on shiny new bicycles; burly college-aged men arguing the merits of The Life Aquatic. This was just like Pasadena, just like home, yet somehow moreso. Most of the people who founded Pasadena were from the area known as Chicagoland, a fact that reflects itself in our accent and architecture. And somehow, though separated by two thousand miles and well over a century of history, the two seemed to still be spiritually connected. Everyone I saw in passing seemed to carry themselves in a manner so fashionable and genteel so as to rival the elite of my hometown. Of course, Chicago is more fashionable and genteel than anywhere in the West, but there was a deeper link that I couldn’t explain. It was with all this in mind that Sam and I went to dinner, and our simple plan was put into motion.
“She’s not a glassblower, is she?” I asked worryingly. As of the time of writing, I was in the midst of a dreadful off-and-on courtship with not one but two glassblowers.2
“No,” Sam said, opening the door for more questions. I had never met Liz. I didn’t know what she looked like or dressed like. Who’s to say I would even like her? Why did she want to see me? And why was she late?
“Probably because of George,” Sam replied. “He doesn’t know how to pay for parking.”
I stopped. “What?”
“He doesn’t know how to to a lot of things,” he sighed. And that’s when they pulled up.
George was first; a tall, blonde, and extremely young-looking guy with glasses. Following him was a porcelain-skinned, immaculately dressed young woman with curly black hair, bright red lipstick, and a sheer polka-dotted blouse. She put out her hand.
“I’m Elizabeth,” she said, and we proceeded into the restaurant.
Medici was your standard semi-upscale Italian restaurant, but one of their seating sections was on the roof, which was very cool. I took a step ahead of Sam and George and followed Elizabeth up a flight of old wooden stairs and across a catwalk in a dark atrium, and found myself in a garden perched among the humble rooftops of Hyde Park. I don’t remember what I ordered. Sam had advised me to keep up a steady stream of conversation with Elizabeth to improve my chances with her, and as happens every time I am pressed to speak, I had trouble finding something to say. But Elizabeth had plenty on her mind.
“I still think it’s amazing that Barack Obama was elected,” she said. “Not because he’s black, but because he represented Illinois.”
She had a point. Illinois is notoriously corrupt, and nowhere moreso than Chicago. In the area around my native Pasadena, seemingly every city council of late was contributing to California’s prison population. She scoffed when I brought this up. “Chicago’s like that every day.”
“So you’re saying if Barack Obama wasn’t black, the whole election would cast aspersions on him as a Chicago politician?”
She grinned. “Exactly.”
After a long talk, Liz broke through the conversation. “Listen, Sam. They way you’re dressed…do you want to go blues dancing?”
I looked uneasily at the other Sam. Before dinner, he had confessed to me apropos of nothing that he loathed blues dancing– a Chicago ritual that Liz had sought to continue during her time at Harvey Mudd, which for Sam meant driving out to seedy exurbs like Fontana.
Sam glanced at Liz. “Okay, we’ll do it.”
But before leaving, Liz insisted on showing us what she called “a secret bookstore.”
“A bookstore can’t be secret,” I said. “How would it stay in business?” You can tell I had not yet moved to Los Angeles.
“You’ll see,” she smirked. Eventually, she led us down some steps into the basement of an old brick building. She opened a door to reveal an incoherent mass of corridors and shelves stretching on seemingly forever. George, Sam and I stared in shock. Liz looked back at me and smiled coyly. “Try not to get lost,” she said, before bolting into the maze.
I chased after her by instinct, rounding each corner just soon enough to see her round the next. I could tell that the others hadn’t followed me. My heart raced, as did my thoughts. This is weird. This is unexpected. This is hot.
Four rooms later I caught her, in the deepest, darkest, most sweltering section of the store: Women’s Interests. She gazed affectionately at a big book on feminism. She leaned into me close and whispered.
“When I was little…no, when I was in middle school…my parents took me to stay with my grandparents in Iowa. And I used to spend all my time in the bookstore. And the women’s issues section was all stuff like ‘weight loss’ and old issues of Cosmo. It was shit.”
I nodded along.
“It’s so important to have a good bookstore.”
I opened my mouth, about to deliver my own sexy whispery bookstore anecdote when Sam jumped in in. “Hey, guys!” he said in a bout of inane excitement. “I’m glad I found you!”
Sam and I followed Liz’s directions to Hoyne and Carroll, in a district of ancient factories– unbeknownst to me at the time, the very neighborhood where my grandfather had grown up. I looked around. On one end of the street was a railroad overpass, on the other was an L-Train. The streets were overgrown with weeds, but tethered to a street sign were some shiny new girls’ bicycles, always a good sign. Liz and George caught up with us and led us into a warehouse, then up several flights of stairs to a loft containing the dance studio.
We began with a lesson. Sam sat watching as I went through the repeated anguish of finding a partner. Initially, there were too few women, but by the lesson’s end, most of the men had given up and left, enlivening the experience considerably. Suddenly I was in high demand from the kind of girls I had always dreamed of meeting back home. In fact, one of them was from back home; an Echo Park girl doing environmental work in Wisconsin.
Blues dancing, it turns out, is filthy. I had never danced like this in school, but suddenly I could see the appeal– though it was not without its downsides.
Liz had just moved into a commune, which she described as “a Catholic version of a kibbutz.” Late in the night, some of her commune friends showed up with some beer, and I got to talking with her new housemate Maisie.
“You don’t sound like you’re from Los Angeles,” Maisie shouted over the din. “You definitely have a Chicago accent.”
“That’s a Pasadena accent,” I said, “it’s historically similar.”
Maisie was wearing floral-print high shorts. “I like your outfit,” I said. “I think it’s really important to be the person of your time and place.”
“I know, right?” she replied in awe. It had always been a dream of mine to dance with a girl in high-waisted pants, and in my excitement I became furiously aroused, faking a knee injury in order to stop dancing and cool off. It was at this point that I realized Sam had disappeared.
I went over to Liz, who took me outside and explained everything. “Sam had some time to think about things, and he got kind of depressed.”
I became alarmed. “Is Sam breaking up with me!?”
“No, no, no. He went to…wherever it is you’re staying. I think he’s going to be okay.”
Now I was getting depressed. “Did he tell you why I came here tonight?”
“No, I just saw you and thought you should come,” she said.
“He got excited for me because you said you loved lightly toasted copilots.”
“Yeah, I’m not really into stoners.”
“Neither am I!” I interjected. “He totally misrepresented me!”
“Listen,” she said, “You have no idea how many guys I meet like you. But you know, I live in a commune, and anyway I’m staying with George in Naperville.”
I left shortly after, and waited to get picked up. Sam was late. He’d run into heavy traffic.
“At this time of night?” I asked.
“All these Indiana commuters,” he said drowsily. “I’m pretty sure Indiana has the worst drivers.”
There was a long pause as we got onto the expressway. “Are you okay?” I asked.
Sam sighed. “Yeah. I will be.”
“Your exact words were ‘yes, I understand my financial aid agreement.’”
I woke up on Dennis’ sofa with no memory of having gotten there, fully clothed with my boots still on. I saw Sam waking up on the floor across from me.
“How much of that was real?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, “How much do you remember?”
“I went dancing, and it was really sexy, and then you picked me up, and I got really depressed, and then it’s just a blank.”
“That was all real,” he said.
I thought hard. “I think I was trying not to fall asleep, but I don’t know why.”
“You were out pretty quick,” said Sam.
After showering, I got a call from my mom. She wanted to know if I’d seen the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Sam was already caught up. “Daniel Craig dropped a Queen impersonator out of a helicopter, Arctic Monkeys performed, and NBC fucked it all up with their terrible, terrible coverage.” I looked it all up later: NBC ran the opening ceremonies on a five-hour delay, as they would the entire games. They ran commercials over the performances, and the anchors pretended not to know who Tim Berners-Lee was.
Sam and I had intended to eat lunch at Harold’s, but it wasn’t open when we got there. As we were both too hungry to wait, we decided to find some deep dish. Sam turned to me as we drove downtown. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“In English?” I asked. I had developed a reputation in college for sleeptalking in an unknown language.3 “What did I say?”
Sam smirked. “Your exact words were ‘yes, I understand my financial aid agreement.’”
I burst out laughing. Sam continued. “At first I thought you were talking to me, but you were asleep and I was all buzzed on Doka. You need a vacation.”
“Well I feel a lot better today.”
“Good,” nodded Sam. “You know, Jimmy Carr didn’t lose his virginity until he was 26.”
The Loop was a delight. The sky was clear and deep, and Grant Park looked flawless and green. It wasn’t too hot, either, but we had a hell of a time finding somewhere to park before settling on the only parking structure we could find: $17 for two hours. We found our way through the crowds on Jackson Street to Giordano’s, which was packed beyond our wildest imaginations. Undeterred, we passed through a revolving door to get in line to be addressed by the hostess, who took our order in advance, and promised us a seat in 45 minutes.
After finally getting a seat, I spotted a fire marshal sign reading “Maximum Occupancy: 130.”
“There are way more than 130 people in here,” I said. Sam pointed out another sign that said “Maximum Occupancy: 32.” The pizza came, and it was amazing. This was a real capital-c Chicago place. It looked like the restaurant where Bill Swerski and the Superfans hung out on Saturday Night Live. The bill was startlingly high, but we paid it with a smile.
In Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson lamented suburbanization and the death of America’s downtowns. Like many of his complaints, they have become laughably outdated as central business districts boom and suburbia collapses. A lot of that has to do with public transportation, and Chicago has some spectacular mass transit: a train that can carry lots of people, that doesn’t run on the street, or under it, but above it.
In that way you have to admire the Victorians. They may have been prudish and bitterly stratified, but they weren’t afraid of efficiency, and goddamn could they build. The L station where we boarded was a marvel of design. From the mahogany doors to the curly details on every tile, they had gone to town. Most amazing was that the city of Chicago had kept it this way. The platform was still made out of wood and the view was fantastic. How could I not love it here?
Sam and I drove out to the north side, bound for Lutz Continental Café and Bakery on Montrose. It was the kind of boutique bakery that played classical music and had a garden in the back. You could find those kinds of places in Los Angeles– usually as filming locations in the early seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm– but Sam was very excited to tell me that they made their baumkuchen in an antique oven, manufactured in Berlin at the end of the Second World War for the specific purpose of producing the perfect Baumkuchen. Lutz didn’t fuck around.
But I had my own destination. Sam and I drove through incorrigible gridlock to Wicker Park so I could take my picture at the corner of Milwaukee and Honore, which film and music buffs may recognize as the site of Championship Vinyl, main setting of the film version of High Fidelity. Wicker Park had a reputation as a hipster neighborhood, but that could not prepare us for what we saw.
As we approached North Avenue, we discovered that Milwaukee Avenue had been blocked off. Unfortunately, we were now in the middle of a six-way intersection between three major streets, so Sam dropped me off to find the location on foot.
“Call me when you need me to pick you up,” he said, giving no further detail as he drove off to scour the neighborhood for a parking spot.
I had stumbled into a massive street concert, pleased to discover another cultural link with my hometown. The women were dressed casually in headbands, high-waisted pastel cutoffs, psychedelically colored wayfarers, and bright lipstick. The men were disappointingly shabby. I snapped my picture of the location. It was a beautiful building, sadly boarded up and vacant. I personally would’ve turned it into an alternative theater that did movie nights like “Assault on 2013: A John Carpenter New Years.’”
I was in heaven as I backed onto Honore to call Sam, but I couldn’t reach him. Approaching the chain link fence separating the festival from street traffic, I couldn’t believe what I saw: Sam, conversing animatedly with a very tall man.
That man was Vincent Uribe, a former classmate of Sam’s from high school. Four years earlier, he had come east and rented out an art gallery on this very block. Despite an early bout of homelessness, the gallery was a hit, and he had become a Chicago icon. If you misspell his name on Google, the correct spelling comes up as an automatic suggestion. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
But we had further to go. We now headed deep into the South Side, to Garfield Ridge, a Polish-Lithuanian-Mexican neighborhood next to the canal to collect yet another cake. This was a rotisserie cake, and it was on display by the cashier, but it looked very different from what we had just bought. It was covered in tendrils, as if it had been baked from non-Newtonian dough.
“Sakotis,” said Sam. “They put the dough in a big oven, and they spin it really fast. They make a huge mess, but when you finish you end up with something like this.” We looked around before Sam finished the transaction. “We’re out of space in the car,” he said. “Do you mind holding onto the cake?”
After buying Dennis a gift of liquor for his hospitality, we ate dinner with him at Harold’s Fried Chicken. I got the spicy dark meat, compensating for Sam who couldn’t eat anything too hot. We didn’t find it to be all that much, but Sam put a positive spin on it.
“At least we can say we bought chicken through a bulletproof window!”
I didn’t care about the chicken. I had just been to Chicago. I was going to leave in a matter of hours. And I was afraid that if I left it would disappear like Brigadoon.
Nothing beats Chicago girls in the summertime.