Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
Regular readers of this blog know how much I miss my home town, Chicago.
There's nothing wrong with Des Moines, really. The people are wonderful. It's a big enough city with enough to to that I don't go completely crazy.
But it's not Chicago. I've lived in St. Louis and Washington, D.C. I enjoyed living in them, too. I went less crazy still.
But they aren't Chicago, either.
New York and Los Angeles have a great deal to offer. I've never been to L.A., and haven't spent a lot of time in New York. But I have to wonder about places where people refer to America as "fly-over country." Chicago is the metropolis of the nation New Yorkers and Los Angelenos so disdain and from which they themselves choose to distinguish their cities. It's American in a way I suspect neither of those other, larger cities would ever want to be, or could even imagine being.
Chicago is a city with a great deal do brag about. But it's also a city with an inferiority complex arisng from its being several orders of magnitude too big and culturally rich to be compared with any other city on the continent- except the one city nobody can compete with- New York. The result is a chip on its collective shoulder. An attitude. A desire to be the biggest, the best and the most which, if not always gratified, is always present and always drives it.
Chicago is a city. Not a collection of suburbs in search of a city, like LA. A city. Yet it is also city of neighborhoods, of ethnic enclaves and local communities each of which possesses many of the positive attributes of small towns. Chicago can be as cold and cruel and indifferent as any other metropolis, anywhere. But it can be kind and caring, too, as few- if any- other world-class cities anywhere can be. For all their customary aloofness- an adjustment to the lack of personal space and privacy involved in several million human beings living vitrually stacked on top of one another- Chicagoans change into something else when a blizzard paralyzes the town, or some other common disaster befalls them. Then Chicagoans turn into something very much like Iowans.
But in Chicago, there is culture and diversity and a richness of life unknown here. And in Chicago, people know that the Hawks are members of the National Hockey League, not the Big Ten. Chicago is the Cubs and the Bears as well as the Blackhawks. It's the Bulls, too- and yes, even the (excuse the expression) White Sox. It's the Sears/Willis Tower and the Hancock and the Civic Center Picasso and the Water Tower and the Lake. It's the museums and the history, both cultural and personal. It's Italian beef and the best hot dogs in the world. It's Green Rivers and Tom-Tom Tamales.
But must of all, it's home. It's where I'll always be from, no matter where I happen to live. And I hope before I die that the circumstances of my life will be such that I can live there again.
The other day I was browsing the shelves at the main branch of the Des Moines Public Library when I came across a 2008 novel by Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition. Its cover proclaimed its title as Windy City, and explained that it was "a novel of politics."
I was a messenger for the McCarthy campaign during the convention riots in 1968, and got tear gassed on Michigan Avenue when Chicago's Finest went berserk (admittedly after a great deal of provocation). The experience galvanized me in terms of local politics. I subsequently spent my late teens and twenties pushing doorbells and making phone calls for various opponents of the infamous Daley Machine. As a result, Chicago politics is a subject that holds even more interest for me than politics of other flavors. So a novel on the subject- especially in my homesickness for the city of my birth and my youth- had a strong attraction for me.
I admit that I had to wonder why the cover bothered with that tiny elephant in the lower right-hand corner of the cover of Windy City. But the donkey at the top of the page was fittingly large, and the elephant was small, so I decided to blame the irrelevant pachyderm on the designer of the cover and check the book out.
Good decision. I loved this book.
To be sure, in various ways the Chicago it describes isn't really my Chicago. I moved away in 1981, half a lifetime ago. To be sure, the name of the alderman for Little Village, the Bohemian-eventually-turning-Mexican neighborhood in which I grew up (it was the 23rd Ward then; it's the 22nd now) is Jesus Flores Suarez. But the Polish (in my day) 35th is represented in the book by Carlo Viola, and the Polish 41st (redistricting has to be the reason here, too; this was Jefferson Park in my day) by Joan Becker. The Chicago of the novel is just as ethnically and culturally diverse as the one I knew, if not even more so. But the ethnic mixtures and their locations are different. "Gay" was just becoming the name of an "ethnic" group when I lived there. New Town was largely where gays lived. Today gays are preeminent in Wrigleyville and much of the Near North Side.
Jane Byrne was mayor when I left. The defeat of Richard J. Daley's hand-picked successor, Michael Bilandic, was a high point of my political life in Chicago. Her defeat by Harold Washington, and his own eventual replacement following his death by Richard M. Daley-"da Mare's" son- were still in the future. I remember sitting in my study at Bethany, Webster Groves straining to hear WGN's coverage of the election of Mayor Washington's interim successor, Eugene Sawyer, by the City Council. It was quite a circus.
It was Chicago.
As things are done in Chicago, the mayor designates a member of the council as vice-mayor. The sole duties of this office are to fill the mayor' chair for a few days, if necessary, in the event of the mayor's death, and to preside over the Council meeting that elects his successor. That successor either serves out the late mayor's term or, if the mayor's death was early enough in that term, until a special election is held.
During the Council election to which I listened into the wee-small hours of that St. Louis morning, the vice-mayor was David Orr, a "lakefront liberal" such as the ones I had worked for back in the 'Seventies. Ald. Orr had been designated as vice-mayor by Harold Washington in a bit of coalition building. As is generally the case in such situations, though, Orr- who bore the wonderful title "Acting Interim Mayor-" wasn't a candidate to drop the term "acting" from his title. The two contenders for the office on the fifth floor of City Hall were Ald. Timothy Evans, representing the lakefront/Washington coalition, and Sawyer, himself an African-American but the candidate of what remained of the old Daley Machine.
Sawyer won- and served until the Machine's real candidate, Richard M., won the special election several months later.
Windy City concerns a similar situation. A beloved and legendary African- American mayor (he seems to be a composite of the Daleys and Washington) is found dead his office late one night, dressed in boxer shorts emblazoned "BIG DADDY," with and his face buried in a prosciutto and artichoke deep-dish pizza. Eventually, he turns out that he was murdered; the pizza was poisoned with nicotine distillate. The identity and motives of the killers are a relatively minor party of the story; suffice it to say that they are brought to justice. The real subject of the novel is the manuevering for that office on the fifth floor among the fifty men and women eligible by law to become Interim Mayor: the members of the City Council.
The protagonist of the novel is the vice-mayor, Alderman Sundaran "Sunny" Roopini. Roopini is an Indian-American restaurant owner from the 48th Ward on the far North Side lakefront. Roopini has recently lost his wife to a shooting in a currency exchange, and as much as he enjoys his aldermanic duties is looking forward to leaving politics and devoting his time to the restaurant and his two teenage daughters.
The very idea of an Indian-American being a prominent member of the City Council is one of the things that brings home how much the diversity of Chicago has increased even above that of my day. The idea of an Indian-American vice-mayor seems even stranger. But there it is.
An essentially decent man (and yes, there have always been such in the Chicago City Council. Or at least usually), he combines strong personal ethics with a surprisingly strong sense of original sin for a nominal Hindu, and a subsequent compassion for the moral weaknesses and ethical lapses of his colleagues. A close personal friend of the late mayor, who treated him as a protege of sorts, Ald. Roopini tries to hold the city (and the Council) together in the difficult days between the mayor's murder and the bitterly contested election of his successor by the Council.
The characters of the novel are colorful, to say the least. They are also, for the most part, believable, very human- and prototypically Chicagoan. Simon captures something essential- and often overlooked- in the nature of Chicago politics when he makes nearly every rascal and reprobate in the council a lovable rascal with virtues as well as vices. Each has his or her own personal quirks and idiosyncrasies, but it's hard to view most of them without personal affection and sympathy, no matter how appalled one may be at their behavior.
Occasionally the characters don't quite ring true. I find it hard to imagine any alderman from the First Ward (notoriously controlled by The Outfit, as the Chicago chapter of the mob is known) jokingly asking a collegue at the urinal whether he could interest him in something in a concrete overshoe- or his collegues laughing about it if he did. Coming from a First Ward alderman, the joke simply isn't funny. One of the few one-dimensional characters is the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois, a wealthy and self-righteous WASP from Northern California (obviously a Republican) who plans a political career- there, not in Chicago- when his time in office is up. In terms of baseball, he is not a Giants fan. He is not an Athletics fan. He is not a Cubs fan, and he is not a Sox fan. He is a fan of "whichever team follows the rules."
Obviously, a seriously disordered personality in Chicago terms.
He's a minor character who plays a small role in the story, and the single exception to a tendency on Simon's part to be, if anything, a bit too understanding and sympathetic for my tastes to the ethical, er, flexibility of his characters. Unless human nature has changed a great deal since I left Chicago, its crooked politicians are at least as often banal and simply appalling as they are lovable. Liberals, in my experience, tend to be at least as self-righteous as the most rabid member of the Religious Right, but Jesse Jackson, for example (who makes a number of appearances in the story) escapes the distain Simon seems to reserve for self-righteous conservatives. While I have never met the Rev. Mr. Jackson, I have had dealings with him, and suffice it to say that I find it easier to see him as a cynical yet self-righteous politician than as "the city's pastor," as Ald. Roopini refers to him at one point.
Moreover, I doubt that Chicago politics have changed quite as much as Simon seems to suggest. In one notable conversation between Sunny Roopini and the U.S. Attorney, the "Temporary Interim" bristles at the suggestion that there is still such a thing as a "Chicago machine." Hogwash. The Democratic organization is doubtless much more circumspect and much less monolithic than it was in the heyday of Richard J. Daley. One might even call it positively inclusive. The oft-repeated Republican canard to the contrary, Barack Obama, for example, could never have arisen from the classic Chicago machine. It was too racist, for one thing. And neither could Sunny Roopini, for pretty much the same reason.
Doubtless the corruption these days is less blatant then it was back in the days when the first Mayor Daley could award a city insurance contract to his son without competitive bidding, and dismiss criticism by asking, "What's wrong with a father helping out his son?" Times change, and, as Simon points out, it's a great deal harder to hide things in smoke-filled rooms in these days when smoking in most public places is prohibited and transparency laws force even those who might be otherwise inclined to conduct public business more or less in the open. But despite Sunny Roopini's insistence that there is too much transparency these days for the kind of shenanigans that went on back when I was ringing all those doorbells, and too much accountability to the voters who, after all, have the last word, only the very naive will believe that corruption has become rarer rather than merely sneakier and more sophisticated in the past thirty or forty years. Especially in Chicago, corruption- like love and nature- will always find a way. And the leaders of minority communities are still blackmailed into staying in line when necessary by Democratic politicians even in places far smaller and more politically transparent than Chicago; I find the suggestion that the City of Big Shoulders has become a particular paragon in this regard to be laughable. It's remarkable what a threat of being cut off from patronage- to say nothing of government programs- can do to strangle threatened outbreaks of independence for and real accountability to the electorate. It may be harder to pull off than it was in the old days, but only the naive believe that Chicago Democrts don't still sometimes "vote early, and vote often," or that by any means all of them who do so are still alive.
Aside from this seeming naivete on Simon's part about the persistence of the less savory forms ofpower politics and the survival of the same specifically in Chicago, his characters are fascinating and believable, his plot is suspenseful, his writing is engaging, his humor is delightful, his portrait of even corrupt politicians sympathetic enough to cause us to care about them even while forthright enough to make us cringe at their antics. The love he and I share for that city by the lake that is so cold and windy in the winter, so unlivably hot in the summer, whose sins are so blatant yet whose virtues are so vast, oozes from every page.
I think it was Studs Terkel who said that it really isn't so much that corruption in Chicago is worse in Chicago than it is elsewhere. It's just that it's so much more threatrical. There is a great deal of truth in that. In Chicago, even the crooks have style- and larger-than-life personalities precisely such as the personalities of Simon's characters.
I love the way the story ends. Part of me was hoping for something like the ending of Windy City, but I didn't think Simon could pull it off. He does- believably.
And so it was that for several hours this week, I found a cure for my homesickness and a delight for my soul in an often funny, well-crafted, and eminenty entertaining tale of the politics of the city I love. For that I thank the host of NPR's Weekend Edition. In fact, I wish the nature of the tale permitted of a sequel.
I've blogged before on how objectionable even I, who am no fan of Barack Obama, find the demonization of my home town by those who oppose him. Well, in Windy City, we find a more balanced view of the very aspect of its life
which is most often excoriated: it's politics. And an entertaining and engaging view it is.