Jan 132011

Jeanie Chung is a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and one of dg’s former students. She was a dream of a student and a dog lover, so she and dg had things to talk about besides writing (see current dog in group photo at bottom of essay). Jeanie’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in upstreet, Madison Review, Stymie and elsewhere. Her author interviews have been published in Writer’s Chronicle and Rain Taxi online; her interview with Aleksandar Hemon will be out in Writer’s Chronicle this spring. She used to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Now she is working on a novel-in-stories based on her experiences covering high school and college basketball. See also her essay in Drunken Boat.

What It’s Like Living Here

from Jeanie Chung in Chicago

Part 1: The second city

Welcome to Chicago. We’re so happy you’ll be staying for a while. You see, so many people view us as nothing more than an airport, a place to change planes between coasts. We used to have the nation’s busiest airport, though now it’s No. 2.

Yes, it seems we’re always No. 2. It’s even our nickname: the Second City. We don’t mind. Second is just fine for us, thank you. In fact, we prefer it. We wear our runner-up status like a sensible winter coat. Sure, it’s puffy and ugly, but screw you: we’re warm. You can see our second-city pride in our malapropism-spouting mayor, our crystalline lake — filtered by invasive zebra mussels! —  that coastal visitors take pains to point out is lovely, but does not smell like the ocean or have tides like the ocean, but they guess that’s OK because, my goodness, who would have thought that such an interesting, vibrant city could exist in the Midwest, of all places? Our embrace — well, the embrace of some us — of a baseball team whose unofficial motto is a cheerful, “Wait ’til next year!” We could be the capitol of Flyover Country, but really, that title should go to a city in Iowa or Nebraska. We’re too big to be properly insignificant.

Part 2: Ubi est mea?

We like the past here, as you’ll find when you can’t go more than a week without hearing or seeing some mention of the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Bears. Politically, we cling to a lot of the old ways. The official motto of the city of Chicago is “Urbs in horto,” which means, “city in a garden.” However, the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko once wrote that our motto should be “Ubi est mea?” or “Where’s mine?” We don’t care if “Ubi mea est?” is more proper.

A lot of what you hear about our politics is not true, but some of it is. Like the part about the Chicago Machine. And the fact that, though we have less than half as many people as New York City, our city council has 50 members to its 51 — the more aldermen, the more patronage, my dear. And the fact that it’s hard to find anyone in city government who doesn’t know somebody who has been charged with something. For those of us who spend time thinking about it, it’s enough to make us very, very careful about what we say and do. Make the wrong person angry and suddenly the building inspector is there to write you up for a back porch that isn’t up to code. Still, we hear we have nothing on Louisiana or New Jersey. Second or third again. To be fair, though, we are just one city and they are whole states.

You’ve caught us at an interesting time, actually: as we prepare to elect our first new mayor in twenty years and who, shockingly, will not be named Daley. We’re ready to break with the past — kind of. Scroll through the list of candidates and you won’t find one without a tie to an old regime, if not the old regime. We can’t recycle trash effectively, but we’re champions at recycling politicians.

It’s not so much that we like it that way — though undoubtedly some of us do. It’s more that we don’t seem to be able to do things any other way. Besides, other than our current president, and Oprah, these are what pass for our celebrities.

Part 3: The windy city

Right now, from an office building just north of the river, there’s a clear view out the window of a billboard reading “Monumental,” above photographs of the Arizona desert in shades of ochre.

Here, winter is only ramping up, which means months of salt and slush ahead. We do like our salt, and our plows, ever since inadequately cleared roads cost a mayor his job. Even though that was thirty years ago, we still take boots that look like the rims of margarita glasses as part of the package, like saving the parking space you just shoveled out by placing a lawn chair in it. Sure, someone could move the chair, but usually no one does. That’s not how we do things.

Truthfully, “Urbs in horto” is not an illegitimate motto for us. We do love our gardens here, once the weather warms up in April, May or sometimes June, and knots of color sprout from between wrought iron fenceposts. We don shorts, tank tops and sheer, gauzy skirts and dresses at the first opportunity and gather at street festivals to drink overpriced warm beer and listen to mediocre cover bands with a few good ones thrown in. We do our best to appreciate the sun while we have it.

Part 4: Gateway to the west

Because of the airport, we’re not really “flyover” here so much as “fly-through.” A way station. For some of us, it’s as good a place as any right now, an in-between geographic state to match our in-between life states. A place to try to limn out our place in the world. Asking not just “where’s mine?” but “what’s mine?” Unlike those air travelers, our one-way outbound flight is not leaving anytime soon. This state of limbo may be the one where many of us spend the rest of our lives.

Part 5: Sweet home

Why? Why do we choose to live here, despite the cold and the corruption and the salt and the traffic and the Taste of Chicago? Why do some of us choose to move here not once, but twice, raise our children and dogs here? What does the Second City have to offer us?

Because, truthfully, we’re not completely cynical, jaded Machine operatives. We could talk about the architecture, from Adler and Sullivan to Mies to Marina Towers, also known as “The Steve McQueen Towers,” for a movie he filmed there, and “The Wilco Towers” for their being featured on the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. We could talk about Wilco, and Mavis Staples and the blues, the late Material Issue, Liz Phair and even Kanye. We could talk about pizza — both thin-crust and stuffed, thank you. But you know all that stuff already.

We could go back to our lake. We could always go back to our lake, especially on the far north side of the city, where streets just dead-end right into a beach and those of us who are lucky can walk down to the water every day. No, it doesn’t smell like the ocean, and off in the distance it’s only Michigan, not Europe or Hawaii or Japan. But that watery expanse is so big we can’t see to the other side, and so for us it could be anywhere.

We could talk about writers, like Farrell and Bellow and Roth, except some of us never actually read any Farrell or Bellow, though we do have a used copy of Herzog somewhere that we’ve been meaning to read it for, like, the last ten years. Or maybe it was Augie March. We have read some Roth, which we liked, but weren’t sure if he really counts as a Chicago writer since all he really did was go to the University of Chicago, about which he supposedly once said, “I liked it. I don’t know if it liked me.” Which, actually, is exactly the way some of us feel about where we went to college, but that was in Massachusetts, so it’s beside the point, other than the fact that we felt inferior there and it’s so much easier feeling inferior here.

We’ve read Nelson Algren, and wish we could show you the building where, as local legend has it, Algren gave Simone de Beauvoir her first orgasm. Except that we’re pretty sure that if that building still exists, it’s no longer a dingy, shambling apartment building, but a hipster boutique or pseudo-dive bar where a guy comes in to sell tamales around midnight, and in any case, we’re not actually sure quite where it was.

Part 6: The city that works

Our favorite piece of public art looks like a bean, which is what we call it: “The Bean,” instead of its official, less prosaic name: “Cloud Gate.” Bold in size, simple in shape, a reasonable walk from both our downtown skyscrapers and our beloved lakefront. It perseveres through cold, snow, sleet, lightning, humidity. We’ll see if it lasts through the new mayor.

It reflects us, catches the light, and if it distorts us a little, it’s only to make us more beautiful. It shows us to ourselves and the world, and we thrill to see the images. We just tremble at the sight.

–Jeanie Chung

(Post Design by Natalia Sarkissian)

  11 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Jeanie Chung in Chicago”

  1. Jeanie: you captured it, in both subject and style. As a transplant from Chicago (who occasionally considers dragging the family back there), your long rambling sentences brought me home almost as much as the geography. And even a mention of the tamale man… Wow! Thanks for this.

  2. You are funny, Jeanie!

    I loved being there for AWP, reminds me a bit of Pittsburgh–not only ‘salt and plows’ but other things…I like your style.

  3. Chicago, Detroit, the Ohio cities, the Twin Cities and Toronto (if it doesn’t mind being included). It’s not flyover country. None of it. The Great Lakes region will always be my favorite part of the world. It’s a passionate place, full of interesting cities and beautiful natural landscapes. I live in the UK now, and I fly over the east coast on my way home.

    • And Indinapolis. I know, surprising, but I’ve been covering the arts and design scene there for years and it’s a vibrant little burg. Midwest, rah rah!

  4. This is a wonderful essay, but Jeanie neglected to mention the best-curated art collection I’ve ever seen: The Art Institute of Chicago. Make sure you get there if you’re planning to go to AWP in 2012.

    Two pieces of Jeanie’s novel-in-stories have appeared in upstreet: “Safer,” in #4, and “One on One,” in #6.

    • I love the Art Institute too, Vivian. I was going to mention it, and put in a photo of the lions, but somehow it slipped my mind. Next time …

      And everyone else, check out upstreet if you haven’t already. #5 is one of my favorites.

  5. Love the pov (which you pulled off with a flourish), the chatty voice, the views. I think I might like to visit Chicago now!
    Thanks, Jeanie.

  6. Jeanie,

    I got so excited that you posted an essay on NC that I forgot to comment on its signature wit and intelligence. I still remember the story you read as a “grad ass” my second residency. I’m a huge fan of your writing and can’t wait to see more from you.

    • Aw, thanks, Mary. That story I read has recently undergone a bit of a transformation, but the version in upstreet No. 6 is pretty much what I read.

  7. Congratulations on the new associate editorship! It led me to your excellent piece about living in Chicago. It captures so much of the smell and taste and ironic humor of living here.

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