Saturday, July 16, 2016

Talking to Myself

This is the third installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

We didn't know it at the time, but legendary author Studs Terkel lived in our immediate neighborhood in Chicago, a couple of blocks south of our apartment on West Castlewood Terrace. One of Studs' bestsellers was his autobiographical "Talking to Myself," and today's post borrows from that title.

In my previous post, "Steps to Lake," I described the adventure of finding our city apartment. Once we had settled into the neighborhood, we began to appreciate its cadence. We observed a regular cast of people coming and going every day, which may seem unusual in a metropolis the size of Chicago, but the city is, after all, a patchwork quilt of smaller neighborhoods. People tend to go to the same stores and restaurants, and they typically take the same buses and trains to and from work.

Fairly soon after arriving in the city, we noticed that a significant number of said people seemed to carry on conversations with themselves. Now, I realize that this is something almost all of us do from time to time, but in Chicago, we saw it elevated to an art form. We began to think absolutely nothing of people talking to themselves on public transportation or while walking down the street. You might not see it at a Chicago Symphony concert, but darned tootin' you were going to see it on the El trains.

Most of the time, when people talked to themselves, they didn't appear to be waiting for responses; rather, they would engage in diatribes about this or the other thing, which was often something quite mundane. I wondered if they were trying to burn neural pathways to memorize events or just create imaginary companions for themselves, because it is true that we observed a lot of loneliness in the city. But overall, these people didn't appear to be in the least concerned or upset about their topics of conversation (as it were) or the fact that others were trying to avoid staring in their direction, and I had to hand it to them for that. But one morning, we observed a self-directed conversation which was like no other.

The temperature that morning was between zero and ten degrees (not unusual for a winter day in Chicago), and we were waiting for the bus which ran north up Sheridan Road to connect with an El train at Howard Street. The bus was taking forever, so we ducked into the McDonald's at the corner of Foster Avenue and Sheridan for some breakfast. There, along a wall of windows, sat a late middle-aged woman facing the wall and carrying on a conversation with an imaginary friend. She was quite animated, talking and gesturing with her hands all the while. We ordered our breakfast and then took a seat to silently observe.

This was back in the day when people could smoke anywhere, and presently, a young man walked up to the lady and asked her for a light for his cigarette. She turned to him and answered, "Why, yes." She then looked back at the wall, pulled out her lighter, and said to her imaginary companion, "Excuse me." When she had finished lighting the young man's cigarette, she turned back to the wall and, without missing a beat, resumed her conversation: "Now, as I was saying...".

This tiny episode confirmed to me that I was indeed living in a place of wonder and amusement. There would be many other such stories throughout our time in the city, but I found that one memorable for the woman's spontaneity and impartial sense of common courtesy. In fact, the whole thing gave me pause for thought and also affirmed to me that it was all right if I occasionally talked to myself, which has since come in handy on many occasions.

I recently read an article that claimed scientists now believe that talking to ourselves actually might be a sign of genius. Supposedly, it helps by stimulating memory, keeping us mentally focused, and clarifying our thoughts in order to firm up decision making. If this is true, I encountered untold numbers of geniuses in Chicago without even knowing it. I wish I'd gotten some autographs.

Truly, living in the city was a learning experience. I could go on and on with these stories, but it's almost time for dinner, and I still have to call my friend. Speaking of, I wonder why he never says anything.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Steps to Lake

This is the second installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

Looking for an apartment in a big city is an adventure, especially when you're young, with limited resources. You soon abandon the idea of landing a place built within the last few years and hope that you can at least find something built since the advent of electricity. Depending on supply and demand, the pickings can be slim, but sometimes, the sales pitch alone is worth a visit.

The Four Towers apartment building (now known as
Shoreline Condominiums), our first city home
When my wife Karen and I got married, we knew we wanted to move to Chicago. This was a calculated decision based on the idea that since Karen was from Boston and I was from Memphis, moving to either of those places would have provided one or the other of us a certain "hometown advantage." Not that this would have been a problem, but we really wanted to launch our lives in our own place, and since we had many friends from college who still lived in the Chicago area, or "Chicagoland," as it is sometimes called by the locals, we made the decision to move to the city. We had both attended Northwestern, which is located in the leafy North Shore suburb of Evanston, but being in our early twenties, we longed to be more in the heart of things. And so, on one weekend in the spring, we began looking for an affordable apartment down in the city, south of the Evanston-Chicago border.

Even though Evanston is officially termed a suburb, it does not look at all like one. The three and four story residential buildings and storefront businesses flow seamlessly as you head south along Lake Michigan into the north side of Chicago at Howard Street, where a large elevated train or "El" station marks the dividing line. Immediately south of Howard sits the venerable Rogers Park neighborhood, which for many years was home to kosher delis and lots of mom and pop businesses. In those days, Rogers Park was a relatively quiet, established neighborhood, and we looked at a few places there, but ultimately, we ended up heading a bit farther south, to the Edgewater neighborhood, which was part of Uptown. There were many Edgewater apartment buildings in our price range, which at the time was less than $250 a month. These days, that would be unattainable, but in 1978, you could actually find a number of apartments renting in that range. We scoured the newspaper listings and came up with several attractive options.

One of the first places we visited sat directly on Sheridan Road, a major north-south thoroughfare paralleling the lake shore several blocks to the east. This apartment was memorable for its liberal use of red velvet flocked wallpaper. I'm sure there were other wall colors represented in the unit, but after seeing the red, nothing else mattered. Given that, and the fact that the apartment sat above a busy street and had absolutely no character, we opted to continue looking.

Another apartment caught our attention with its tagline, which read, "Steps to Lake." We stopped by and found that indeed, the place was only a short walk from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, but that was really its only redeeming value. The front door opened into a lobby which was probably stylish in the 1940's but was seriously showing its age. Many buildings in Chicago open onto a center courtyard, and the leasing agent told us that this one did as well. We poked around looking for said courtyard and finally found what he was referring to: an open-air architectural aberration in the rear of the building which effectively provided a chute from the top floors to the bottom, where discarded cans of paint lay abandoned and rusting.

The agent took us to the apartment, and it was a sight to behold. The walls contained built-in cabinets with drawers which did not slide in and out as intended, but rather sat in the cabinets at angles. The windows looked out on other buildings, and the floors needed refinishing. The place just looked tired. At one point, the agent pointed out a small alcove and said, "This would make a nice sewing room for the ladies." But sewing room notwithstanding, we just weren't interested. We said thanks to the agent and continued looking.

Funny thing, but the perfect apartment turned out to be just around the corner. When we finally stopped in to look at it, we realized it was exactly what we had hoped to find. It was a little one bedroom unit with a Pullman kitchen built into a side wall of the living room, and it had a quiet, comfortable bedroom with a functional little bathroom that must have had about ten colors of tile on the wall. But it was clean and it was livable, not to mention that it was on the eleventh floor of a building called Four Towers, on North Marine Drive, and it sat directly across the street from Lincoln Park. We signed the lease.

We settled into city life quickly. We learned how to walk groceries home from the supermarket, how to entertain on a shoestring, and how to find our way around using only public transportation. In the evenings after work, or on the weekends, we would take our ten speed bikes down the freight elevator and ride them across the street into Lincoln Park and onto trails which led directly over to the lake shore. From our living room windows, we looked out over the north side of Chicago, and at night, we would turn off the lights and let the city illuminate the room. Many evenings, we would sip glasses of Valpolicella wine with friends and just gaze out at the seemingly endless metropolis.

And so, in the end, we had a place to call home, a place without red velvet flocked wallpaper, and with drawers that actually slid in and out of the cabinets. It was clean, quiet, comfortable and, for being on a tight budget, actually rather stylish. We felt like we had arrived, and all for $185 a month (plus electricity). But perhaps best of all, we were still literally only "Steps to Lake."

Sunday, June 19, 2016

LSD

It dawned on me a few days ago that I hadn't written many blog posts about my years in Chicago. I moved there in the fall of 1973 to attend Northwestern, left for a year after graduation to return to Memphis, then came back to the city and lived there until 1982, when I was offered a corporate transfer to Atlanta. This is the first installment in a series about my time there.

There's this one thing you need to know about Chicago. No name can stand on its own without a corresponding, highly abbreviated nickname. Even people who go by the initials "J.R." will find themselves addressed in Chicago as simply "J." The paper is not called the Tribune but "The Trib." In this spirit, locals often refer to Chicago's major lakefront thoroughfare not as Lake Shore Drive, but rather "LSD." And this is where our story begins.

LSD with very light traffic
It's not every day that someone drives away from their wedding in a U-Haul truck, but such was the case for my wife Karen and me on that warm summer evening in August, 1978. We had a little one bedroom apartment in a high rise waiting for us in Chicago, and although I had moved my possessions there a couple of months earlier, we still had to transport Karen's things from her family home in suburban Boston -- hence, the U-Haul. I hadn't driven a stick shift much, but since the trip was mostly on the interstate, it wasn't too bad. We found some good radio stations and made a nice trip out of it. After driving for two days through New England, across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, we finally found ourselves on the third day, breezing north on Lake Shore Drive, ready to settle into a new life.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and I was probably driving about 40 miles an hour, when suddenly, I saw the lights of a police cruiser in the driver side mirror. Thinking that the policeman must have been on someone else's tail, I continued to motor north, when out of the blue, he appeared immediately to my left and yelled into a megaphone, "Truck, pull over!" Without hesitation, I pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, wondering what in heavens name I had done.

The officer walked up to the window, and this was the exchange which followed:

Police Officer: Sir, you're driving a truck.

Richard Brooks: Yes, officer, I know.

PO: But this is Lake Shore Drive.

RB: Yes, I know.

PO: But Lake Shore Drive is a boulevard.

RB: Yes, and...?

PO: Commercial vehicles are not allowed on boulevards in Chicago.

RB: Is this a commercial vehicle?

PO: Yes, it is. May I see your license, please?

At this point, I realized that I was out of my element. I had driven so-called "boulevards" countless times, but as with many big cities, Chicago has its own rules, and I had apparently violated what the officer considered to be an obvious one. The problem was, I had a Tennessee driver's license (which at the time had no picture), Karen's was from Massachusetts, the truck had Arizona plates, and we were driving in Chicago. The officer obviously didn't like what he saw, and the dialog continued:

PO: Sir, may I have your bond card?

RB: What is that? I don't have one.

PO: OK, then...I need to have you follow me to the police station.

And off we went, following the cruiser to the 39th and Prairie police station on Chicago's South Side.

Let's just say that the police station was not in the best part of town, and as we walked in, we noticed that the walls were lined with posters of America's Most Wanted and Chicago's Most Wanted. In all seriousness, the Chicago group looked much more threatening. We walked up to a police desk like the ones you used to see on television, with tall lights topped by round globes on each side. A rather jovial policeman then explained to me that they would have to keep my license and that I would have to appear in traffic court in a couple of weeks. Also, he explained that a "bond card" was Chicago's term for a proof of insurance card. After all the business was done, the officers escorted us back out to the U-Haul, and since Karen had been a stick shift driver for some time, she took over the driving.

Since we couldn't take LSD, we had to meander through the streets of the Loop to get to our north side apartment, and Karen piloted the U-Haul like a champ, making our way under the rattling overhead CTA lines and tons of pedestrian traffic. She handled it as gracefully as could be expected, and when we finally got to the apartment, we wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, but trucks don't unload themselves, and our apartment was eleven floors up. We made good use of the freight elevator that day.

And so began life in the city of Chicago. Four years in the rarefied air of Northwestern on the North Shore had not really prepared me for this, but somehow, we thrived in the city, and in the next few posts, I'll tell you how it all worked out and how by the end of my time there, I was shortening names with the best of them.