Sweet Home Chicago

Decades ago, when I lived in San Diego, I was hired as a legal secretary based purely on one thing: I was from Chicago. Confused, I asked for an explanation. He replied, “People from Chicago are hard workers, so I know you’ll work hard.” And that was it. I got the job.

The truth is, we make generalizations about people based on where they are from. They are never completely accurate (let’s face it, we’re complex creatures), and perhaps in some ways unfair, and yet, they are always undeniably partially true. Places shape us, much like families do.

Our hometown is an identifier, a way by which we are known. The accent in voices, the dialect, the lingo. In the mid-80s as a PBX phone operator in San Francisco, I would answer the phone, “Hyatt Regency, this is Jan.” And my nasal pronunciation of my name always gave me away. It seemed like every other day a caller would say, “Jaan, are you from Chicago?”

Our hometown’s history is our history. The town’s pride is our pride. When folks ask me about Chicago, I still mention Mayor Daley – the original Mayor Daley – who lived a few blocks away. And Comisky Park, where I attended many games. For no good reason other than I grew up in Bridgeport, the White Sox will always be my baseball team, even if I never really followed the sport. Disco demolition day, which tore up the field between a double header with the Detroit Tigers, will always be a day I remember fondly. And when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, you can bet I was watching! From a ranch in Idaho, having just been thrown from a horse and with frozen peas on my legs, I still managed to watch the winning game.

The places where we grow up become imprinted in us. The physicality seeps into our bones. The sounds and smells. The architecture and skylines. The weather, the sky.

The Chicago of my youth was the smell of stockyards and trains, sweat from crowds and foul odors from the streets. Winters of dirty snow, biting winds, and grey skies. Summers of concrete, construction, jackhammers, and tar. Hot dogs with mustard and Old Style beer. Italian Ice and pizza cut in squares. Low-riders with loud booming music rocking their cars and shaking the air. Brick buildings and potholes. The Sears Tower and Hancock crowning the skyline. A curving Lake Shore Drive. Humidity. The temperature? Always cooler by the lake. This is the Chicago I know, the Chicago still inside me.

Our hometown is always part of us, even when we move away, even if it no longer feels like home. It is almost part of our genetic history. We come from this family. We are part of this tribe.

So with all this in mind, I wish Chicago a very happy birthday! Founded in 1837, Chicago is 184 years old this month.

Seventeen years ago, a local news station paid homage with the following:

Below is Carl Sandburg’s poem, in full. Written when Chicago was only 77 years old. Reading this again, I’m struck by how much of a working man’s city Chicago has always been. (no gender bias) And it makes me think, as family structures go, Pittsburgh and Chicago must be siblings, or at least cousins. What do you think?

Where are you from?

How does your hometown define you? 

Chicago by Carl Sandburg

        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.

First published in 1914, this poem is now in the public domain. Bold highlights are my own.

For more great stories and to read my adventure as An American in Italy During Covid-19, follow me at FindingHome.substack.com!

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