LOCATION: CHICAGO.

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CALL HER THE SECOND CITY ALL YOU LIKE, BUT CHICAGO'S MY NUMBER ONE GIRL
[posted 07.26.2001]

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Searching for a home
Searching for a home
Searching for a home
Via Chicago

— Wilco, Via Chicago, via Chicago.

“Look at that skyline. God. Just LOOK at it.”

It was both early and late, and the sun was just on its way to work. The orange light glinted off the Hancock Building in the distance, off the top spires of the Sears Tower to the east, and I watched the lovely angular behemoths that overlooked this town start to wake up. We hurtled down North Avenue toward the lake with the windows down and the sunroof open, and I sat in the back taking it in, bleary-eyed and maudlin.

“I love this city,” I said over the wind.

“Sounds like you love LOTS of cities,” she said.

“That is incorrect. I like-LIKE lots of cities. I LOVE this one. I would have kids with this one.”

It’s true. I love Chicago. I would marry her. I would make her breakfast in the morning, with real eggs and bacon, too. In fact, I would even go as far as to say I would get a tattoo with her name on my favorite arm, just to show you all that I am smitten for real.

I never really wanted to live in Chicago. It’s not a destination, at least not for someone who isn’t from the Midwest. It’s a pit stop. There’s the Left Coast and the Right Coast, and the In Between is sort of all lumped together into the “Midwest” and left to others to suss out. Chicago just seemed to always be the place you caught your connection to either New York or L.A.

Once I got here two springs ago, though, my mind was changed. This is a jewel of a town. A wonderful pocket of Big City painted up in small town color and blue-collar sensibility. It’s music, art, sport and culture, talked about over beer and brats. It’s masculine strength, but with feminine grace, like big gnarly hands that play jazz piano. It is the kind of city in which you hope the statue-winning movie of your life would be set. People here die from the heat AND the cold. People here love their shitty sports teams. People here are nice.

But I moved away. California called, said it wanted me to hang out for a while. Silly me.

I’m just visiting right now, this month. Leaving California, where I’ve lived for a year. San Francisco is a sweetheart, but I had already left my heart in Chicago. Been laid off, laid out, like most in my general demographic who trucked out, starry-eyed, to Silicon Valley in the last couple of years. I’m trying to figure out what’s next, whooshing about the country. And lookee here. I’m back in Chicago.

Was down at Schuba’s on Southport one night, rappin’ with some nice kids from Orlando who were also trying to figure out where they were going to land next. Caught myself making grand, sweeping gestures with my arms, felt my eyes getting big and my voice getting hoarse while I explained, in colorful, image-inducing language, what turned me on about Chicago. I get all worked up talking about it.

THE INDIE CITY

We were all there at Schuba’s to catch Archer Prewitt from The Sea and Cake and bass-blowout kings Dianogah. Pointed out to them that this sort of thing goes on ALL THE TIME, all over town. All sorts of local music cats will pass in and out of your life, and you may not even notice. Just about any day of the week, you’ll find them holed up in some club in town, peddling their wares and adding to the legend that is Chicago music.

In case you’ve been frozen in a cryogenic state or trapped under something heavy, Chicago’s somehow become the epicenter of the indie rock world. It’s a creative place, and it’s relatively cheap to live here, so lots of music types have collected here and are making great music in their living rooms as you read this. All sorts of bands of different stripes and sounds reside here, and if you’re lucky, they may even be serving you your beers and waffles. Sure, you’ll get your share of the shop-spectacled cardigan scenesters and occasional moppy-coiffed cool riders that any good scene harbors. But the community here is super-supportive and diverse and most of it is pretty dang good. One reason I was excited about moving to Chicago AT ALL was the fact that the bands I’d been worshipping at the time all came from here. Tortoise. Wilco. Sea and Cake. Liz Phair. U.S. Maple. Styx. And, um, Chicago.

It’s still relatively untainted. I mean, sure, you had your Cheap Tricks and your Smashing Pumpkins and your Ministrys. But really, deep down, this is still a working town, still a very humble, hidden treasure of talent and inspiration. And the musicians and labels and fans who really love their music here know it. Top that with the staggering variety of amazing jazz, blues, orchestral and house music that flows through this city’s veins, and you’ve got yourself a big bad buffet of sounds to keep your ears happy for years.

DEEP-DISH AND RED HOTS AND CHEEZBORGERS, OH MY!

“What would you say is your favorite food in Orlando?” I asked the kids at Schuba’s. “Like, what food is distinctly ORLANDOAN?”

Their eyes glazed over in a familiar way. I am from Florida, too. Ain’t shit in Florida.

I was in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, asking people around town what Canadian food was. You know…what food is distinctly CANADIAN that one could write legends about or have jingles for. ‘Bout the only thing I could even think up was Canadian bacon, and that, my friends, is pretty lame. Lamer still is that Canadians didn’t know either.

Now, Chicago — this is a city that loves to eat. They know what food they do well. If someone posed the question to me, I’d unbolt my holster and pistol-whip them with a confident word or two about my favorite foods here.

There are really three major food groups (at least to me) in Chicago: Hot dogs and pizza and cheezborgers.

A Chicago red hot is like a hot dog, but, heavens, so much more! Take an innocent wiener in a bun (preferably poppyseed or sesame) and pile on onions, tomato slices, mustard, pickle wedges and a dash of celery salt. Stuff in there a jalepeno pepper or two and you have in your hand a gastronimical delight. Enjoy with a Coke. These ain’t walkin’ dogs, either. With all that shit piled on top of it, you really need to sit and appreciate it. Nothing better than enjoying one of those suckers outside at Superdawg Drive-In, up in the north end of the city, under the giant ceramic anthropomorphic Red Hots posing on the roof. Scary, but charmingly so.

Despite what you may have heard of Chicago-style pizza, you really actually have no idea until you’ve been here and conquered one. I’ve been to lots of places in lots of other cities that claim to serve deep-dish fare, but they were pathetic and I wanted to set them on fire. But a good pie from Edwardo’s or Uno’s will set you free. This town is where the deep-dish was dug out, my friends. It’s not just the dish, either, it’s the truly fucked up way Chicagoans like to invert their pies, serving ‘em inside out. Crust, then cheese, THEN sauce on top — it’s a real barnburner if you’ve never encountered one before. One slice will make you heavy and happy.

Cheezborgers are a pretty unique thing here, too, though there really isn’t a Chicago “style” of hamburger. It’s just that the burgers round these parts have so much personality. One of my favorite places to grab one was down into the bowels of Lower Michigan Avenue in the friendly confines of the Billy Goat Tavern at lunchtime. It’s an assault on the senses: people piled in line, the smell of the griddle grease and smoke smacking you in the face. And little Sam Sianis yelling as you stumble in: “You want cheezborger! YOU! You want a double cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger!”

The walls are lined with Chicago journalism history, enlarged Roykoisms and Kup’s columns, lost photos of the Daleys, names of infamous writers, all of it yellow-stained from the decades of cigarettes and conversation and cheezborger-slingin’. I’d grab my thin cheezborger and cheeps (“No fries! Cheeps!”), pile on the thick-cut onion slices and pickles and escape into a time that I wasn’t around for, wishing so hard all through my meal that I had been.

BIG SHOULDERS

In a grand, wide-angle lens way, this is a great city to look at. Dare I say, it’s a sexy beast. There’s a texture here that’s fetchingly urban, but not overwhelming. From the softness of the faux beaches and green of the Lake Michigan shoreline, to the angular, stunning diorama of architecture that extrudes from downtown, this is the right amount of everything to me, all balanced in a big city skillet. I used to get so turned on just getting out of the Grand Avenue stop on the Red Line and walking to the Tribune Tower on a crisp November morning. I loved the way the mist breezed past the terracotta tips of the Wrigley Building, the way the water of the Chicago River sparkled in the morning while I waited for the lights to change on the Magnificent Mile. These are things not to be missed when you are here, and things missed when you are not.

If you want an awesome perspective of the city, go sit atop the 96th floor of the Hancock Building, where the drinks are really expensive but the view is free. It was the place to hang out at night and view the grid, looking down on the Allerton and on the rooftop pools and the spectacle of the Navy Pier jutting out on the lake. You can just kick back and enjoy the microbustle of a Second City. It’s staggering to see, especially at that altitude, with a few in you.

LONG DECEMBERS AND APRIL FOOLS

“But the weather,” Orlando Girl said. “I don’t know if I could stand the winters.”

“I’ve heard they’re pretty brutal,” Orlando Boy said.

I bristle at this. I mean, I know what living in Florida is like; it’s hot, it’s humid, it pretty much SUCKS. There just isn’t a whole lot of contrast, and contrast is important when it comes to seeing the good and evil of things. This is WHY I left Florida, for chrissakes.

I loved my first and only winter in Chicago. I’d never lived with snow before, and that made most of the folks I knew here chuckle. “Oh, you just WAIT,” they’d say.

When winter arrived, it landed on us hard, but it was not what I expected. I expected immobility and emergency, this preconceived notion that when it gets cold here, everything just STOPS. That is incorrect. Life continues. It’s just a bit slower, with more layers and wetter shoes.

There’s something to be said for contrast. It’s easy to get complacent wherever there’s good weather all the time. The year tends to slide into the next. The fine meterological circumstances make you lazy.

But here, you get a simple menu. Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. The Big Four. It’s comforting in its predictability. It’s fucking hot, it’s fucking cold and the in-betweens are pleasant, storybook things. It’s a real rush when that lake-driven snow begins letting up near the end of April and the restless natives rediscover their front steps again. Because you realize that, yes, it’s another year, yes, I’ve grown up today, and yes, I love being outside again. People jump for joy at the sunshine and they make up excuses to party on their blocks and break open their fire plugs. It’s a cathartic climatic experience that should NOT be taken for granted.

SEARCHING FOR A HOME

Something tells me I should have stopped trying to convince those kids from Florida to move here. I mean, a city can only hold so many people, right? I need to save room for me. I must remind myself to keep it like a secret.

I miss it here, I really do. So far, of the places I’ve been, Chicago’s the hands-down winner. I still have places to check out, other coasts to bear, though I get the sinking suspicion I won’t find much better than this. This place is always in the back of my mind. It has become my City Gauge, my Municipal Measuring Stick by which to unfairly judge the next big town I set foot in.

I will be back here one day, probably sooner than you think. I will arrive with flowers and candy in my arms. I will drop to one knee and propose to this town, hoping she’ll say yes, and then I’ll live here happily ever after. You watch.

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gregory perez walks these streets, a loaded six-string on his back. he plays for keeps, ‘cause he might not make it back. he’s been everywhere, still he’s standing tall. he’s seen a million faces … and he’s rocked them all.