You Were Never in Chicago

You Were Never in Chicago

by Neil Steinberg


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226104157
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/26/2013
Series: Chicago Visions and Revisions Series
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,000,762
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Neil Steinberg is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he has been on staff since 1987. He is the author of seven books, including Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life and Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora, and the History of American Style.

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You Were Never in CHICAGO


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 Neil Steinberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77205-9

Chapter One

Manus manum lavat

A baton twirls, its white rubber tips blurring with speed. The dimpled chrome shaft catches sunlight, flashes, sparkling as it is tossed high into the air, pauses, falls, is caught, spun, flipped around the back, then smoothly grabbed and sent spinning up again.

The baton twirler is not part of a marching band, not on some suburban high school football field, but walking down the center of Broadway on a beautiful summer afternoon in Chicago at the start of a new century. Music throbs; the crowd jamming the sidewalk waves and cheers.

This is the last Sunday in June and the last day we are living in the city of Chicago for the foreseeable future. Maybe forever. Tomorrow the big red truck from Midwest Movers will come and burly men will muscle everything we own down into the street and out to the suburbs.

"If I didn't take my wife's lead," I sheepishly explain to friends who ask how we can leave the city, "I'd still be a single guy living in a one-bedroom apartment in Oak Park."

Today she takes my lead. Though there is much to be done, many possessions still lurking deep within closets, stragglers from the herd, waiting to be flushed from their hiding places and penned in brown cardboard boxes, my wife agrees to take a break for a few minutes and walk over to the thirty-first annual Gay Pride Parade. One last look as residents living a block off the route. To soak in the color and excitement we are abandoning by moving away. Of course we'll be back to watch the parade again, I tell myself, certainly we'll be back, though as tourists, visitors in for a few hours from suburbia.

The festive throng is enormous, filling the space between building and curb. Muscular men, their shirts stripped off , displaying tribal tattoos of Tibetan mandalas, Greek phrases, bands of thorns, "HIV +." Women in cutoffs and bikini tops. Kids with painted faces and balloons tied to their strollers.

We wander the street. Our own boys, three and four, have been deposited at their grandparents' house, to get them out of the way during the chaos of the move. Heading up Broadway, we approach the four-story brick Nettelhorst Elementary School, the main reason we're leaving.

"Why not just send them to kindergarten?" I had implored my wife. "Give it a try. How bad could it be?" Edie replied by calmly pulling the stats: by second grade, 92 percent of the Nettelhorst kids have reading scores below state average. That's how bad.

Music whumps from passing floats. Honorees in convertibles roll slowly by, beaming and waving. The year before, I took our older son Ross, then three, to the parade, by accident. I was heading to the hardware store to buy a plunger and brought him along for company, forgetting that a quarter million people had gathered at the end of our block.

Undeterred—and not realizing that the hardware store would be closed for the parade—I swept him up in my arms and we pushed forward, joining the onlookers. Ross gazed around at the mustachioed leather boys, the bodybuilders in tiny Speedo bathing suits, the harlequins on stilts, the flamboyant drag queens wobbling under giant feathered Mardi Gras headpieces, the bannered vintage convertibles with that year's crop of dignitaries perched atop back seats, where they could be better seen by the crowd. His eyes widened, he pointed a quivering finger and said, "Daddy, those men ... they're not wearing seatbelts! It isn't safe!"

I loved that. My son was so worked up by the fact that people riding in cars weren't wearing seatbelts—the life-or-death importance of which had been drummed into him—he wouldn't let the matter drop until we reported the emergency to a cop holding back the onlookers, who shot us a single glance of puzzled annoyance before returning to his duties.

The rest of the spectacle didn't strike Ross as unusual.

The Chicago Pride Parade began in 1970 as a protest march to commemorate the first anniversary of the riot of gay patrons at New York's Stonewall Inn. Marching in the parade in its early years was a radical, risky act, a bold declaration of "We're here too!" A flaunting in the street of something many feared to tell their friends, coworkers, even their families. You could lose your job.

No more. Thirty years later automobile manufacturers have floats. Banks have floats. The Chicago Transit Authority has a float, with employees playing in a band, mimicking the Partridge Family TV show. Former mayor Jane Byrne became the first major politician to march in the parade in 1983 and others followed, including Richard M. Daley, the first sitting mayor in the parade, which eventually approached the level of the St. Patrick's Day Parade as a political requirement. One-time gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch appears every year, in a convertible decorated with a banner declaring, "I'M NOT RUNNING FOR ANYTHING."

And Cook County treasurer Maria Pappas, twirling a baton.

Catching sight of her brings me unexpected joy. There she is, tall, trim, dark-haired, fetching in a spaghetti-strap tank top, twirling away. I feel a burst of raw happiness so unusual that I instantly begin to pick it apart and analyze it.

Her baton is not news. The former majorette has twirled in seven out of the last eight pride parades. I've seen Pappas do it before. But for some reason, her act never struck me the way it does now.

Maybe because of the lovely summer day. Maybe because of nostalgia—we're leaving the city and decamping to the suburbs tomorrow. Not just to the suburbs, but to Northbrook, a particularly suburban suburb, with neither the moneyed grace of Wilmette or Winnetka, nor the blue-collar pride of Niles or Des Plaines. A neutered nowhere, arrived at through a tactical retreat inspired by the crummy city schools and, to be honest, the city itself. The boys need to go through three locked doors—our second floor apartment door plus two heavy outer security doors—to reach the street, to descend to the muddy, dog-piss-murdered patch of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, there to play for a few closely watched minutes beneath the hulking, black-barked, hacked-up trees outside our place on Pine Grove Avenue, sidestepping bottle caps, petrified dog turds, and broken glass. They can't go alone. They have to get an adult to go with them. So the boys tend not to bother going outside; it's easier just to ride their Big Wheels around the dining room table. Around and around and around. Like rats in a cage. Is that any way to grow up?

Pappas represents, to me, a glimpse of the vanished idiosyncratic glory of the city, the colorful past which always seems to be disappearing over the horizon, if not utterly lost already. The carnation-wearers, the bamboo-cane leaners, the nudge-and-winkers, the organ-grinders, the First Ward Ball revelers, in grand procession headed by Bathhouse John Coughlin, proudly leading his "harlots and hopheads, his coneroos and fancy-men, his dips and hipsters and heavy-hipted madams" to use Nelson Algren's piquant description, "coneroo" being slang for a con man.

That city, that world, is gone—or so the common wisdom goes—replaced by the dull, packaged, homogenized present, our tepid moment of compromised mediocrity. The funny thing is, people always feel that way—pick whatever era in history seems most exciting, most distinctive, real and alive, then examine that period closely; you will find that Chicagoans of the time were also nostalgic, also troubled by what they considered society's decline, also confronting a problematic present while mourning some imagined superior past. Take 1927—a giddy whirl of bathtub gin and tommy guns and flappers in sheer silk dresses doing the Charleston. Chicagoans back then were aghast at their city's criminality.

"We are known abroad as a crude, ill governed city. We are known for our ugliness," Chicago treasurer Charles S. Peterson bemoaned in December 1927, when forming a committee to bring another world's fair to Chicago—1933's Century of Progress—in an attempt to dilute the city's gangland reputation by recapturing the lost promise and excitement of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a grab at the fading memory of innocent joys: the White City, the Ferris Wheel, and Cracker Jack.

Leap back to the 1893 world's fair, however, and Chicagoans, while certainly basking in the glow of their renewal, also despaired whether the city would prove worthy of all the attention. They worried about disease, about being up to the task of hosting multitudes, and they steeled their resolve by remembering the city's courageous, unified, and tireless response to the Great Chicago Fire. "Our first duty, gentlemen of the City Council of Chicago, is to keep the city in a healthy condition, so that when the world comes here it will not enter upon a charnel house," said mayor Carter Harrison Sr., in his inaugural address on April 17, 1893, a month before the fair opened, calling it, "the most trying period of Chicago's history, except when the besom of destruction passed over it at its mighty conflagration."

Yet at the time of the Great Fire, in October 1871, Chicagoans saw not only heroism, but also a sinful city scourged. "Fleeing before it was a crowd of blear-eyed, drunken and diseased wretches, male and female, half naked, ghastly, with painted cheeks, cursing and uttering ribald jests as they drifted along," the editor of the Chicago Tribune wrote to the editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, describing the fire. For strength, beleaguered Chicagoans recalled the difficulties of the city's founding. "The rain that helped put out the flames created pools of mud, reminding survivors of the city's swampy foundation," wrote historian Ross Miller.

But at the city's swampy foundation ...

Charles Fenno Hoffman approached Chicago on a frigid New Year's Eve 1833, five months after Chicago had incorporated as a town, at a meeting where twelve residents voted yes and one voted no. The night before Hoffman's arrival was spent twenty miles away, east along the lakefront in "a rude cabin built of stems of the scrub pine, standing behind a sandy swell about 200 yards from shore."

The twenty-seven-year-old New Yorker lay huddled in a buffalo skin, with his saddle for a pillow, listening to experienced Chicago hands trade stories of the money to be made, of the "meanness, rapacity, and highway robbery (in cheating, stealing, and forcibly taking away) from the Indians." Hoffman felt "indignation and disgust" at the practices described, but also a certain regret.

"I should like to have been at Chicago a year ago," he told his cabin mates.

You get the picture. Hoffman hadn't even gotten to Chicago yet and was already wishing he had arrived sooner—a common sentiment in an era when real estate prices could soar by the hour. There is a tendency to denigrate the present, whatever it is, because we know so much about it, while romanticizing the past, whatever it was, because its less pleasant details grow fuzzier with each passing year, accentuating the cherished highlights even more. This impulse can be particularly acute for newcomers, who missed the great era of the day before yesterday, arriving, as they must, in the confusing, compromised swirl of today, and so can be left with a permanent sense that the party is always ending just as they show up. The party is never now.

But maybe that is not quite true, not quite yet, and here comes Maria Pappas as living proof, marching down the middle of the street. The treasurer of Cook County, a $7 billion a year enterprise, at the time, with 230 employees working like plow horses for this gal, then fifty-one, spinning her baton down Broadway. In a blink, decades pass in my mind, and I am telling my grandchildren about the year 2000, and the quirky leaders we were blessed with back then. They had gumption, like characters in a James Thurber story, the Ohio politicians fanning their soup with their hats and inveighing against any proposal to shift the clocks to Eastern Standard Time as "directly contrary to the will of the Lord God Almighty and that the supporters of the project would burn in hell." Thurber's Columbus city clerk keeps a tuba in his office. Our Cook County treasurer once nested a pair of amorous cockatoos in hers, and now lofts her baton against the perfect summer sky. Them were the days.

Man, I think, she's good. She never drops the baton, not once, not in my sight, anyway, and I watch her as she marches away down the street, doing all sorts of elaborate tricks, under her legs, behind her back, spinning, catching, flinging again. A band plays. The thousands of onlookers clap.

"Later," I write in my column in the Chicago Sun-Times:

I pondered how she could do it. She doesn't care. Astounding. Not that she is indifferent, or doesn't give a damn. But she is proud of herself, the baton queen of Wheeling, West Virginia. She's good at it, and if people want to laugh behind their hands at her, if those too hidebound to imagine doing such a thing themselves want to condemn, well, screw 'em.

That is liberation. Freedom from caring, too much, about what other people think of you. Wanting to be liked, to fit in, is a curse. The curse of the outsider, trying to belong. Which leads back to the irony of the parade; a celebration of difference but, on another level, an orchestrated plea to fit in, to be accepted, to overcome prejudice and wedge themselves into the mainstream by weight of numbers.

Maybe I'm being gulled by a baton, by its wacky appeal. Perhaps Pappas was just another politician, sniffing out votes among the inverts, using her particular gimmick to catch the attention they all crave.

But it didn't seem that way to me. Not that day. Not since. To me, the baton was a nod of solidarity to the besieged community. As if she were saying: Hey, we've all got our stone to bear. I've got this baton-twirling problem myself.

At this point Pappas and I have never met. But she likes being portrayed in the newspaper as the gutsy avatar of genuine Chicago and good-looking to boot. The day after the column runs, she phones and invites my wife and me to dinner. We accept.

* * *

Manus manum lavat—with the v in lavat pronounced like a w, "lawat"—is one of the first phrases taught to beginning Latin students, and it means, "One hand washes the other hand." Friends help friends. A better known Latin term for the same concept is quid pro quo—"this for that." It isn't on the Chicago city seal, but it might as well be. My meeting the Cook County treasurer, and our relationship over the years, which was to grow more complex and involve jobs sought and advice offered, political campaigns parsed and scandals spun, began in that moment of innocence. There was no calculation, at least not on my part. I was delighted to see her twirling a baton in the Gay Pride Parade and thought it might make an interesting subject for a column. She, a figure of occasional controversy, beset by enemies keen to paint her enthusiasm as a form of insanity, was delighted to see herself bathed in a flattering light, to recognize a friendly face in the crowd—a friendly face with a newspaper column. Pappas invited us to dinner, not at her place, wherever that may be, but at the opulent Astor Street home of her friend, the architect John Regas, a thirteen-room mansion designed in 1922 by David Adler, with an oval central staircase running its four stories. We dined on the rooftop terrace on a soft summer night.

Money tends to awe. It awed in Babylonian times and it awes today. I had never been in a kitchen with twelve-foot ceilings, and gazed at the expanse of cherry cabinets with wonder. Regas later sold the house where we had dinner—he asked $10.5 million and got $9.2 million. By entertaining my wife and me there, by serving us complex red wines and a meal made by her own hands—a proud Greek, Maria whips up a mean Greek salad, a triumph of black olives and cubes of feta cheese—the treasurer arranged for us to savor the fruits of wealth without actually stuffing money in our pockets. I doubt she thought of it that way at the time; I certainly didn't. But such is the case.

Now that we knew each other a little, I would sometimes stop by for coffee at her office in the County Building, which shares an entire block downtown with City Hall. The structure looks like a single edifice, divided down the middle, city to the west, county to the east, but they're actually two identical, mirror-image buildings, constructed at different times. The cornerstone for the County Building was laid in 1906; the cornerstone for City Hall was not set until more than three years later, after the County Building was mostly finished and occupied. Though identical, the County Building cost 50 percent more to construct than City Hall, a reminder that while Chicago corruption gets the notoriety, the city sits within the even larger, even more corrupt Cook County.

Not that Maria and I talk about this. We swap gossip and compare complaints. She is good friends with David Radler, the Canadian multimillionaire then running the Sun-Times for press lord Conrad Black. Maria is the only person I've ever met who sincerely claimed to be Radler's friend, seemingly oblivious to how improbable that sounds to someone who works for him. At first I don't quite believe her—can she be serious? She likes the rapacious little greedhead? The warmest emotion I can manage toward him is a sort of King Midas pity for a man who can survey the wide sweep of this glorious world and only notice the parts that are money. But she does indeed like and respect him, and wants to impress one of his minions with how efficiently her corner of county government operates.


Excerpted from You Were Never in CHICAGO by NEIL STEINBERG Copyright © 2013 by Neil Steinberg. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

One   Manus manum lavat

Two   “God, I am in Chicago”

Three   “A tolerance for rubes”

Four   “Give her my regards”

Five   “Your show of shows”

Six   “I’ll get you a judge”

Seven   In the sleeping room

Eight   “How long is it supposed to last?”

Nine   Annals of the paper tube trade

Ten   “A byutafl day in the palka”

Eleven   “You gave the money away?”

Twelve   A visit from the Angel Nacht

Thirteen  “A lot of broken hearts”

Fourteen  Driving with Ed McElroy

Fifteen   “Gee, ya think?”

Sixteen   The city in fog


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You Were Never in Chicago 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The style if writing is very engaging. The insight into Chicago's people and places is informative and entertaining. For anyone who was born in Chicago it is a must read. For everyone else you will enjoy the stories of our city.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mr Steinberg's feelings as an outsider are well articulated in "You Were Never in Chicago". Natives should read this book and get a really different and new appreciation of their city. People from far away should read it and finally learn that Al Capone is no longer what Chicago is about and hasn't been in a very long time!!