Subscribe to Granta today

What is Chicago

|

‘I called Ciloski to ask him,’ Paul Harrison said. ‘I got him on his direct line at work. I told him that you’re writing something on Chicago and that your angle was what Chicago is.’

‘Ciloski. How is Ciloski? Is Ciloski still with the Fed?’

‘Very much so. I think he’s running the place.’

‘Running the place? You mean he’s the governor of the Chicago Fed?’

‘There are no governors in the regional Fed banks,’ Harrison said. ‘There’s a president, who is the CEO, and a vice-president, who’s chief operating officer. The governors are in Washington. Ben Bernanke is the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, which includes the regional banks and the Board of Governors.’

‘Ciloski’s the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago?’

‘No,’ Harrison said. He was shaking his head. ‘No, I didn’t say that. Nor did I say that he’s the chief operating officer. What I said was, is that I think that Ciloski’s running the place.’

‘You don’t know what he does?’

‘I’ve known Ciloski for almost thirty-five years,’ Harrison said. ‘Ciloski was one of the first people I met when I came to Chicago. Ciloski was working for the Chicago Fed even back then. I didn’t know what he did back then, and I have no fucking idea what he does now.’

‘Did you ask him what he thought about the economy?’

Harrison shook his head again. ‘He won’t answer a question like that. If you ask him, he’ll say something like, “It’s there.” Ciloski always likes to hear about you, though. “Ah yes,” he says in his John Belushi voice. “Your poet friend, your poet and labor law professor friend from Deeeetroit who lives in Nooooyawhk”... He still remembers you from that lunch we had at the Oyster Bar at Shaw’s ... When was that?’

‘In the late eighties,’ I said. ‘It was during the playoffs between the Pistons and the Bulls.’

‘Eighty-nine,’ Harrison said. ‘I remember that playoff series well.’

‘I remember Ciloski going on and on about Isiah Thomas ...’

‘Born in Chicago,’ Harrison said. ‘As was John Belushi, of course. The Pistons were the “bad boys”, remember? I loved it. You had the Chicago fans accusing the Pistons of being thugs.’

‘So,’ I said, ‘you ask Ciloski what he thinks Chicago is, and he says?’

‘The Hairdo.’

‘The Hairdo?’

‘The Hairdo,’ Harrison said, then smiled. ‘With a capital T and capital H. Chicago, according to Ciloski, is the Milorad Blago Blagojevich Hairdo. I start to laugh and Ciloski’s off on a Blago rant. Milorad Blagojevich, drops the Milo, changes the “rad” to “rod.” Rod Blagojevich. Born in Chicago into Chicago’s eastern European working class, attended Foreman High, then to Florida to the University of Tampa, then — up and coming achiever that he is — transfers to Northwestern and then goes on to Pepperdine Law School, where, rumour has it — a rumour, some say, spread by The Blago himself — that he spent all his time surfing and dyed his hair blond.’

‘Ciloski is telling you this on the phone at the Fed?’

‘On his direct, private line at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, just down over here on LaSalle Street. Telling me this right off the top of his head, in this slightly pitched “son of Polish displaced persons,” central banker’s tone of voice of his. He keeps repeating ‘you want to know what Chicago is?’ and won’t stop. Blago. Blago Blagojevich. Marries Patricia Mell, daughter of Thirty-third Ward alderman, Richard Mell. Runs for governor on the slogan, “You want change? Elect a guy named Blagojevich” — the change being that the two governors before him, both Republicans, were named Edgar and Ryan. Proclaims himself the first African-American governor of Illinois. Rahm Emanuel took over his much coveted seat in the United States House of Representatives — the seat that Danny Rostenkowski held for a million years before he pleaded guilty to mail fraud. Rahm, Ciloski says, is one smart motherfucker. The only thing that The Hairdo and Rahm have in common is that both of them were born in Chicago and both are known to be “every-other-word-is-fuck” Chicagoans. Note, Ciloski says, that he is pronouncing Chicagoans “Cha-cah-go-ins” — he tells me to make sure that I tell you that. He asks me if I knew that The Hairdo considered asking Oprah Winfrey, yet another prominent Chicagoan, if she wanted Obama’s Senate seat? Oprah, according to The ’Do, is right up there with Will Rogers and Bob Hope as one of our greatest public personalities. Of course, I know, Ciloski says, that Milorad always made sure that his armed guards at all times carried his special hairbrush, for when he needed it. The Sun-Times gets a psychiatrist to say that Blago’s obsession with his hair is a manifestation of serious narcissistic personality disorder. Ciloski says, “Duh? You think so?”’

Harrison and I were at Corner Bakery, a sandwich shop located in downtown Chicago on North St. Clair. I arrived a few minutes before we were to meet at four, and had gotten a cup of coffee and a table beside the window. I’d known Harrison since we were classmates at the Jesuit high school in Detroit. After high school, Harrison went to Harvard and Harvard Law School. He then worked for two years as a law clerk for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, during Watergate and the severe economic downturn that followed the OPEC oil embargo. He then worked for the NLRB’s Chicago office for three years before joining one of Chicago’s oldest and most prominent labor union firms, which he is still with, as a senior partner.

Harrison sat back in his chair, taking a long drink from the bottle of his Diet Coke. ‘Tired,’ he said, after I asked him how he was. ‘Tired and old, is how I feel. No,’ he added, then paused. ‘It’s not that I actually feel that old. I don’t. Do you remember when we were twenty-five, thirty or even forty—how very little we gave a fuck about sixty-year olds? I feel like I’ve crossed over some kind of a line into a different time zone. I find that I look at things differently, think about things differently. I feel I’m in my mind a lot. I’m healthy’ — he tapped his fingers three times on the table — ‘knock on wood. Or, at least, I don’t know if I’m not healthy. My son says that I’m too abstract. I’m abstract but I’m also going on sixty-one years-old and am still hustling my ass off, trying to stop people’s lives from being ruined, and, for the most part, not succeeding, because there’s not a whole fucking lot that you can do except to fight whatever you can fight. I was, in fact, in federal court this afternoon before coming over here to meet you. I had to talk with the judge and the lawyers on the other side of this really awful pension benefits case. The judge is okay, opposing counsel are real scuzballs but idiots, which pisses off the judge, who is not an idiot. But the point I wanted to make’ — Harrison took a sip of his Coke, placing the bottle back on the table — ‘when I walked into the federal courthouse, while I was waiting in line for security, my feeling mind was jolted by what you might call a ‘Yes, the world really has changed’ moment. Right when you enter the federal courthouse, there are photographs now of President Obama and his Attorney General, Holder. Two good-looking, young African-American males. I thought to myself, my God, this really has happened. It suddenly hit me that this has really happened.’

Harrison poured the rest of his Coke into a glass. ‘Are you sure you don't want any of these,’ he asked, holding open a bag of potato chips. They're kettle-cooked. They're good. No? I know,’ he said. ‘You want me to tell you what I think Chicago is. So’ — Harrison sat back again in his chair — ‘let’s go Chicago. Chicagotown U.S.A. I heard that there’s going to be a movie on the Chicago Seven — I think Spielberg’s doing it — Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Will Smith as Bobby Seale. The judge — what was his name? I can’t remember his name..?’

‘Julius Hoffman.’

‘That’s it. Julius Hoffman. A Chicagoan, too, by the way.’

‘Abbie wasn’t a Chicagoan, was he?’

‘No’ — Harrison laughed — ’Abbie wasn’t a Cha-cah-go-in. In the early eighties, there was some kind of an attempt — I don’t recall the details — to get Judge Julius off the federal bench because he was not only nasty and stupid, but clearly fucking loony. When you think of it …’ Harrison was shaking his head. ‘It was originally The Chicago Eight, but Hoffman severed Bobby Seale’s trial. He had federal marshals actually shackle and gag Bobby Seale, right in his courtroom. The Chicago Seven trial kicked off the seventies in Chicago, the seventy-nine mayoral primary between Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne ended them.’

‘That was when Byrne won against Bilandic because he didn’t get the snow plowed?’

‘You got it. Chicago history. We’d just moved into our house. I had to get up on my roof during the fourth or fifth day of a blizzard, in a wind-chill factor of thirty-below zero, and shovel three feet of fucking ice and snow off of it so it wouldn't fucking collapse.’

Harrison leaned over and lifted his briefcase from beside his chair onto his lap. He took out a file, and from the file, several pages of paper, which he placed on the table. ‘Notes,’ he said. ‘Fifteen pages of handwritten notes — from the how many billions of pages that have been written on the great state of Chicago? My God,’ Harrison said, bursting into laughter. ‘You’ve got this look on your face like you’re going to fucking die. Don’t worry. I’ll keep the lesson short and sweet.’

Harrison looked at his watch and then back at his notes. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Chicago. Chitown. Here, for example — Saul Bellow. Observations of his from the late seventies, after he’d received the Nobel Prize. Quote: “To be concise about Chicago is harder than you might think. The city stands for something in American life, but what that something is has never been altogether clear.” Bellow again — I quote: “The city is always transforming itself and the scale of the transformation is tremendous.” Quote: “But tough or sensitive, we somehow grasped that this is a rough place, a city of labor and business, gangs and corrupt places, ball games and prize fights.” Saul Bellow — quote: “Chicago is a prairie city with a waterfront.” Then, of course, Augie March’s famous opening sentence, which Bellow wrote in Paris in nineteen forty-eight, the year of our birth. “I am American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city.”

‘Like that?’ Harrison asked, paging through his notes. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘I’ve got more. Edmund Wilson. An essay he wrote on Jane Addams and Hull House in late November, nineteen thirty-two, a few weeks after Roosevelt was elected. Chicago, late November, nineteen thirty-two. I quote: “In the morning, the winter sun does not seem to give any light. It leaves the streets dull. It is more like a forge which has just been started up, with its fires burning red. The lake in the dawn is a strange stagnant substance like pearl that is becoming faintly liquid and luminous.”’

Harrison turned ahead several pages. ‘This. Richard Wright’s opening paragraph, the second half of Black Boy. “My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie.” The year is nineteen twenty-seven. And here, Carl Sandburg describing the unreal city in the late eighteen-eighties. “Three overland trains arriving the same hour, one from Memphis and the cotton belt, one from Omaha and the corn belt, one from Duluth, the lumberjack-and-iron range... The slaughterhouse of America, with the never-ending flow of animal blood ... Open-hearth furnaces roaring by night and day … A million people crowded into this stretch of prairie at the end of Lake Michigan.”

‘Notice?’ Harrison said, looking up from his notes. ‘This stretch of prairie at the end of Lake Michigan. A prairie city with a waterfront’ —Harrison continued — ‘in which we have, according to Sandburg, quote, “the most amazing polyglot of tongues since the Tower of Babel. Poles, Croats, Serbs, Rumanians, Russians, Norwegians, Swedes, Germans, Irish, Sicilians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Finns, and second and third generation Americans, reaped off the farms and from the towns and cities of a dozen neighboring states by the suction of a tumultuous new metropolis in the making.” It’s still true,’ Harrison added. ‘An immigration lawyer friend of my daughter's was telling me that she had a hearing where she needed an interpreter to translate from the Wolof.’

‘The Wolof?’

‘It’s a Sub-Saharan African language spoken by an ethnic group, the Wolofs, mostly in Senegal, but also in The Gambia and Mauritania. Over a hundred languages — that’s known languages, my daughter’s friend is quick to add — are, apparently, being spoken in the year two thousand and nine in polyglot Chicago. I’ll finish with this. This is Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in nineteen-thirteen, speaking in the early sixties in his home on South Lake Park to the English musicologist Paul Oliver. It’s from Oliver’s book Conversations with the Blues — Oliver records conversations that he had in the early sixties down South, and in Detroit and Chicago, with blues musicians. Muddy comes up to Chicago in forty-three. “I got a job at the Chicago Mill,” he says, “a paper mill, with those fork lift trucks, and then got a little job working for a firm that made parts for radios. That was war time then and they needed a lot of those pieces I guess.” His uncle, who had been in Chicago a long time, gave him his first electric guitar, his uncle said everybody was playing those electric guitars and told him that he ought to play one and bought him one. He met a lot of guys, many who had come up from St. Louis, guys like Robert Nighthawk, and, Muddy said, “I got me a rockin’ band. Had Little Walter on the harp ... I picked him up in Chicago ’cause he was playing on the streets then. He’s real tough, Little Walter, and he’s had it hard. Got a slug in his leg right now! But he’s the best damn harp player there is.”

‘There it is,’ Harrison said after a pause. ‘The toughness. Chicago tough is real tough. Obama is tough.’

‘Didn’t you tell me once that you've met him?’

‘I’ve met him once,’ Harrison said. ‘At a fundraiser, when he was running for the Senate in two-thousand four. We spoke for a few minutes. I do know people who know him well, and know a lot of people who know people who know him well. But that’s Chicago. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody well. I know people who've known him from back in his organizing days. He’s been in power how long? It’s the fourth of March — the inauguration was on the twentieth of January. You’ve got eleven days in January, twenty-eight days in February, four days in March — forty-three days. In forty-three days, he’s already reduced the Republican Party to its right-wing racists, its hypocritical, misogynist, hate-filled clowns and thugs. They can’t see how smart he is, I mean really fucking smart. Nor can they see his equally fucking smart political skills. You know one of the things that I like most about him? He has a contemplative side. He likes to reflect on things. He’s also sarcastic, which makes them crazy. They don’t know when he's putting them on. And that smile of his... gotta love it. He still maintains his Hyde Park residence, you know. The President of the United States pays property taxes to the City of Chicago. Cathy and I were in Grant Park the night of the election to hear Obama’s speech. My son was there with his friends, my daughter had come in from San Francisco the day before, and was there with her friends, too. Obama came up from his home in Hyde Park to watch the election results in the executive suite on the top floor of the Hilton, with its view of Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. The present Mayor Richard Daley — you got to be wondering what is going through his mind — is there with him. It was this unseasonably warm, clear, beautiful, fucking incredible night. Obama begins his speech …’

Harrison paused. ‘How many people do you think saw and heard that speech just through the Internet? Two billion? He begins his speech by quoting Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” I Googled the entire speech. I’ve got the opening written down in my notes. Here. “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.” Can you believe it? He begins his speech by quoting Sam Cooke! My daughter’s downloaded different versions of the song into my iPod for me — Aaron Neville, Aretha, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding. She sent me a YouTube of Bob Dylan singing it at the Apollo Theater’s seventieth anniversary in the early nineties, Ossie Davis introducing Dylan, saying that Sam Cooke wrote the song after hearing Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” It got me going back to listen to my favorite Sam Cooke song, “Bringing It on Home To Me,” with Lou Rawls singing background.’

‘You always liked that song,’ I said. ‘I can remember you saying that it should be the National Anthem.’

‘It would be a great National Anthem,’ Harrison said. ‘It would calm everybody down. Then’ — Harrison smiled — ‘then, right after the election, I read this article on-line in the New York Times about when Obama was at Columbia in the early eighties. His roommate said that they both read a lot, listened to a lot of music, but what caught my attention was, Obama’s roommate said that they had to study John Rawls’s Theory of Justice for a course that they were taking, and he remembers Obama saying that he would rather be studying Lou Rawls. So I went back and listened to some Lou Rawls. “Dead End Street.”’

‘The Hawk, the Almighty Hawk, Mister Wind,’ I said.

‘It’s still a terrific song,’ Harrison said. ‘“I was born in a city that they call The Windy City” ... “Mister Wind kind of mean around …”’

Harrison’s singing was interrupted by his ringing cell phone. ‘Mister Wind kind of mean around winter time,’ he said, smiling, as he took his BlackBerry out of his pocket and looked at the name of the person calling. ‘I’ve got to take this,’ he said. He listened for a minute and then said, ‘Okay. I’ll call you in about an hour.’ Harrison shook his head. ‘It never ends,’ he said. ‘You don't have a BlackBerry, do you? I’m addicted. My own little information central machine. Machines. Everybody’s carrying around their machines. BlackBerries, iPhones, iPods, cell phones, laptops. The Internet, blogs, YouTube, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter—social networking. You network through machines. The new Machine Age.’

‘How about the old Machine Age?’

‘Detroit,’ Harrison said. ‘Motown — the Motortown. You know, back in the twenties cars were called machines. Dashiell Hammett calls cars machines.’

‘Have you been back lately?’

‘During Christmas. We visited my sister and her family,’ Harrison said. ‘They live in Birmingham, near Woodward and Maple. It’s incredible. I got up early on a Sunday morning and drove for two, three hours, by myself. Down Woodward, over on Six Mile, down Livernois to Puritan, Puritan back to Woodward. Highland Park — the original Ford plant. Down John R. Mack Avenue. Fucking incredible. Entire sections of streets no longer there — real wasteland, your real unreal city. One-third of the city that we were born in is no longer physically there. It’s fucking depressing, is what it is,’ Harrison said. He looked at his watch again. ‘Why don’t we get going? Let’s walk over to the lake. It’s already getting dark — before it gets too cold. You know,’ he said, as we were putting on our coats, ‘Chicago’s at least three times the size of Detroit. But a third of Chicago is the same as Detroit. The bad news keeps coming. Everybody knows somebody who’s lost a job and looking for a job, and can’t find one. I saw the word underutilized being used to refer to laid-off workers. Underutilized? Underutilized as to what? What’s going to be there to be utilized?’

We came to the lake. Night had fallen, the sky was thick with clouds. ‘These people have criminally so fucked things up — some things, I fear, irreversibly. Notice’ — Harrison paused — ‘you can feel it, how the wind picks up by the lake. It’s not too bad right now—the water’s calm. Sometimes you have waves, real, breaking waves.’

‘Do you think Obama can deal with it all?’

‘We’ll see. He’s certainly going to have his problems. Formidable problems. Problems with his military, the banks, the insurance companies. He’ll side with the Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell military power — he really has no other choice. He’ll set up foreign policy relationships with Russia and Europe. He’s going to regulate the banks — not soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. He’s going to enact some sort of health care legislation, environmental legislation, and then take it from there. There’s going to be a lot of old fashioned, priming-the-pump Keynesianism — ‘economic stimulus’ is what they’re calling it these days. The Employee Free Choice Act may have to wait until the economy gets better, but there’s a lot he can do through Department of Labor regulations. He’s got an organizer’s instincts. My friend who knows Obama from his organizing days — he’s with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which Saul Alinsky founded. The principle of Obama’s political strategy — finding a consensus and then building on it — is, my friend says, right out of I.A.F’s ‘ten-day training,’ which Obama took before he began organizing in the late eighties. When Obama talks about looking at the world as it is — it’s a page out of I.A.F.’s ten-day training program. Then’ — Harrison said after a long pause— ‘then, there’s his Martin Luther King justice side. This is a man truly humbled by those who have suffered persecution for justice’s sake. He let’s them speak through him. This is no soft, sentimental shit, either. He knows that people have been killed, brutally killed, for justice's sake. It’s a real strength that he has, and it’s deeply religious. He knows it and he knows it’s a gift. Grace — the gospel song’s amazing grace. How many times do you think “Amazing Grace” has been sung in the City of Chicago? Have you noticed how he comports himself with great dignity? The dignity of workers, of working people. Of those who have suffered from hatred and injustice. He speaks openly about how his mother for a time needed food stamps. Do you think that just might affect the way that he looks at things?’

We walked up along the lake to Walton, then over to Michigan Avenue. Harrison paused. ‘Remember back in seventy-three,’ Harrison asked, ‘when I’d just finished law school and was about to go to Washington, you sent me a book, Cane, by Jean Toomer?’

‘I do remember that,’ I said. ‘The first book of the Harlem Renaissance.’

‘Well,’ Harrison said, ‘I loved the book but had forgotten about it until I came across a book of Toomer's unpublished writings. It turns out that Toomer spent a year in Chicago before Cane was published — one of the stories, in fact, is set in Chicago — and that he lived in Chicago during the late twenties and early thirties. After Cane, he disclaimed any racial identity. He said he was of mixed Negro and European, and American Indian blood, and believed that racial distinctions — which, he said, were biologically meaningless — would one day socially vanish. In the book of unpublished writings there's an untitled piece on Chicago, written — my guess — around nineteen twenty-seven, nineteen twenty-eight. He writes about how everything in Chicago stands out, everything — its gangs and businesses, its politics and social groups. Chicago impresses itself on its residents and on anyone who visits it like no other city does. He says its geography has something to do with it. It’s a city, he says, of flat and open prairie. The wealthy North Shore suburbs, the western suburbs, the dwelling places of the working classes and the settlement houses of the poor, can't keep the prairie out. The prairie joins hands with the flat spread of Lake Michigan. You feel the prairie in The Loop, on Michigan Avenue, in the parks, on every street, in every house. For all its buildings and skyscrapers and sprawl, Chicago is still a part of, and as open as, the prairies. The lake, ocean-like, is flat and utterly exposed.

‘Yeah,’ Harrison said, as we came to Michigan Avenue. ‘Bellow. Chicago is a prairie city with a waterfront. The city of tremendous transformation and change, always changing — what doesn’t change is its geography. Toomer writes about walking with a woman friend along the lakefront on a cement promenade that follows the water from Lincoln Park southward, and curves at The Drake Hotel to ... to where we are standing right now. It’s night. The city’s stark exposure suddenly strikes Toomer as cold, almost inhuman. He tells his friend this, and she says that this is Chicago, that this is what being in Chicago feels like, and, she says, she likes it. But she then says to Toomer that there’s only one thing that she would change. “I’d make the water salty,” she said. “How I’d love to smell the brine! If it were briny, I’d say it was perfect.”’

See the cover of Granta’s special ‘Chicago’ issue, designed by Chris Ware

Granta acting editor John Freeman introduces the ‘Chicago’ issue, in this short film

Read advance praise for ‘Chicago’

Comments (5)

You need to create an account or log in to comment.

  1. seanog34

    Thu Sep 17 03:23:45 BST 2009

    This is a wonderfully warm portrait of Chicago. Thank you to those who selected it. Thank you also to those who selected the Aleksander Hemon story of the coffee set inherited as a token from a tragic loss. I am reminded of an earlier Granta I have which contains a story about the man who had a Beverly Hills custom hand bag store which is visited by the writer who wants to talk about Oskar Schindler, as the proprietor knew him. I loved that story and the tone of this narration on Chicago reminds me of it. I used to go to Granville avenue in the 1980's to visit an uncle who is a missionary priest. We played tennis near there and visited people. I later went to Cameroon to visit the same uncle.

    #