10 Things I Learned in Chicago

1 – Chicago may be a very big city, but its values are of the prairie. There’s little of the pretense, jadedness or can’t be bothered-ness of New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. To see the difference, hop in a cab in New York and then Chicago. In New York, the first thing you say when you step into a taxi is your destination. In Chicago, it’s “How ya’ doin’?” Skip this greeting, and you risk a frosty reception even in the heat of summer.

2 – Forget “the Windy City.” Chicago should be nicknamed “City of Pubs.” Whether cheering your team while quaffing beer from a color-coordinated plastic cup at a sports bar, listening to a crooner in a piano bar, meeting friends at your local that’s been there a century, or belting out show tunes in a crowd of 300 at a gay bar, these are places where Chicagoans take unbridled pleasure in being in the moment with neighbors and friends, old and new. This is not to say that Chicagoans have a problem with alcohol – it didn’t seem any worse than elsewhere – but in the event that you’ve gotten yourself too much “in the moment,” public transit can get you home pretty darn well.

3 – Brick – all by itself – can be a design statement.

4 – The $6 top shelf cocktail is not dead.

5 – Nor is courtesy. People practically fought to see who would give up their seats for the elderly first, transit drivers “sirred” me every step of my journey, and the bus kindly waited for me as I rushed across the street. Order a drink at a bar, nurse it for an hour, come back for seconds and the bartender will actually remember you and what you ordered. This just does not happen in LA or New York.

6 – McDonald’s is not just a restaurant chain headquartered just outside of town. Apparently it’s a way of life. Out to dinner at a fancy restaurant in the suburb of Lincolnshire, I overheard a different conversation from every table around me about a recent McDonald’s meal.

Cloud Gate (The Bean), Millennium Park, Chicago

Image by VSmithUK via Flickr


7 – “What is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” – Richard J. Daley, August 15, 1967. He was talking about the city’s public art, and that tradition has continued four decades later. Millennium Park, especially on a warm summer Sunday, is a great stroll. At least go and look at Anish Kapoor’s gleaming stainless steel sculpture “Cloud Gate,” aka “the Bean”:

Renzo Piano's modern wing rooftop space

Image by via Flickr


and Renzo Piano’s new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago was entirely worth the trip.

Ironic, too, that Daley could also have been talking about the city’s – and state’s – politics, what with famous corruption scandals.

8 – Best t-shirt of the trip: “K is for karate chop,” worn by a Sluggo lookalike walking out of a 7-11 eating from an open package of Velveeta, something I did not know was possible.

9 – Chicago is also called “the city that works,” but it’s seriously ridiculous that nine years into the 21st century one still must wait in, albeit swift, Disneyland lines to purchase tickets with cash from actual people behind counters on Metra, the regional rail system. Maybe the nickname refers to giving people jobs that machines could do, and inconveniencing the rest of us in the process.

10 – I back the bid, as Chicagoans call the city’s application to host the Summer Olympics in 2016. Among the four candidate cities (Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo), by rights I think Rio ought win it; there’s never been an Olympics in South America. That said, a Chicago Olympics would be a prime opportunity to realign the world’s perception of America following the Bush era: energetic music and theater scenes, world class art and a chance to see real America at its friendliest. You want samba? You can probably even get that, after a fashion. I’m getting visions of wild-maned, plus-size babes in football jerseys, sashaying down Michigan Avenue to “Twist and Shout.”

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