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My Kind of Town: The Glories of Chicago in the Cold

January 27, 2015

ChicagoMy husband has been having a lot of business trips to Chicago lately, which has got me thinking about my home town. The gray, snow-heavy skies, the smokestacks, the way Lake Michigan freezes over this time of year – a veritable tundra flanked by a glittering skyline that looks like it’s made of Legos.

I love Chicago in the winter.

And no, I’m not some sort of masochist who enjoys being whipped by gale-force icy winds, have my tears frozen to my cheeks and my toes..wait, what toes? I can’t feel them anymore.

So, I should clarify. Being a visitor there at this time of year just sucks. All you want to do is curl up in your hotel room and thank God that you live somewhere else. What I’m lonesome for is living in Chicago during the winter. And those are two very different things.

I will preface this by pointing out that Summer is magnificent there. The city comes alive with the purpose and voracity of an ant hill. There are Blues fests and Jazz fests and food fests and lakeside beach parties and all manner of good times had. It’s a walking city with great architecture, and people sit out on their stoops, talking to neighbors or just any old passersby. I was sitting on a friend’s stoop some years ago when a guy ran out of an Irish bar across the street and hollered, “The Bulls just won the Championship!” Stores, restaurants and homes emptied in a rush as a spontaneous parade ensued – joyful, uncontainable – continuing all the way downtown. So, the summer does indeed have magic.

But the winter is special. It has it’s own vibe and exists only for those in the know.

I love the grit, the ugliness of the winter. The way the snow turns black and the stockyards empty, looking like they’d come victim to a dirty bomb. The way there are so many Buicks still on the road.

And the fact that everyone shrugs off the cold. As a kid, I had only a handful of snow days and they were always just after some mammoth blizzard. But as soon as the tire chains were on, our parents would wrap us up from head to toe and send us out into the arctic chill. At recess, we would actually play a game where my friends and I would spit high into the air, just to watch our lugies shatter when they hit the ground. It was so damned cold our saliva froze in mid air.

Chicago winter

Winter is when Chicagoans are at their best.

Like when my roommate brought home some Australian tourist who’d been locked out of his hostel after missing the midnight curfew. And no, it wasn’t a hook-up. It was a kindness. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. I didn’t. We set him up on our couch, gave him a key and let him come and go for the next few days – just to save him some money. My roommate even lent him her car.

It’s just how we roll there.

He hung out with our friends, we let him tag along to all of the best places nobody knows about, cooked many of his meals, and made giant bowls of popcorn as we entertained ourselves to the sounds of our neighbors’ screaming fights – a favorite past-time in my first post-college household.

“I’m gonna have you killed!”

“You don’t have the wit to have me killed, you moron.”

“Shut up!”

“You shut up!”

“What do ya want for dinner?”

“Let’s get Chinese.”

(This was an actual exchange. I wrote it down in my journal)

All of this was during a deep freeze, too. They happen at least once a year, when the temperatures plunge to about 26 degrees below zero without windchill. The poor bloke had chosen to come to Chicago at the worst possible time. He was traveling in America for most of the year and for reasons that defy logic, made his way up from Florida instead of continuing laterally and staying snuggly in the South. Yet at the end of it all, when he sent us a Christmas card the following year, he wrote that the time he spent in the Windy City was by far the best he had during his whole trip.

And I believe him.

He was welcomed into a subculture that not a lot of outsiders get to see. A tribe of urban dwellers who, no matter how God-awful the weather, endeavor to go out and have a ball. The bars and restaurants jam, the invitations go out, the parties rage. People tear up the night with a gusto.

chicago nightlife 2

It’s why Chicago winters are responsible for some of my fondest memories.

Like hitting the blues bars on the South Side as a teen and taking for granted the legends on the stage. Because truth be told, we were there to indulge in some under-age drinking, and those bars would accept your grandmother’s expired driver’s license. Heck, they’d take a note from your grandmother that read, Please let Billy drink alcohol tonight. He’s over twenty-one – swear.

Chicago is marvelously, unapologetically corrupt.

chicago cops

It’s also romantic. Underneath the scarves and the sweaters and the down jackets lie burning hearts.

I remember drinking whiskey with my future husband at a one-time speakeasy, listening to a live three piece Jazz ensemble into the wee hours and reading scratch graffiti from Al Capone’s day. We fell in love in Chicago, mostly during the winter, and spent countless chilly nights at everywhere from dive bars to champagne bars, seducing each other with off-color humor that would make people on the coasts shudder. And made the people around us snicker and buy us drinks.

End of April, 1953, New York, NY

Because Chicago is like that. It’s down to earth, no bullsh*t. And her citizens have retained their sense of humor. They eat big, they laugh big, they drink big. And if they like you, you’ll get a helluva lot more out of them then the polite albeit interesting conversations you’ll encounter on the cocktail circuits of New York and San Francisco. Not that I’m knocking those. They have their own excitement and make you feel like you’re part of the glitterati.

It’s just that a Chicagoan will make you feel like you’re a part of a family. He’ll have you take your shoes off in his house – for comfort, tell you a story, offer you a bedroom in case you over-indulge, and hug you when you leave. Hug you tight.

In spirit, what’s called “the lake effect” extends far beyond the drastic swings in weather chronicled by the city’s meteorologists. An infinite expanse of sky, along with a history of dirty-underhanded dealings, fires, massacres and machine politics has created a population that can take it – whatever it is.

In that light, a little sub-zero weather is nothing.

In fact, it’s an opportunity for spontaneous acts of generosity – like scraping the ice off a neighbor’s windshield in the dawn hours, leaving a heavy dumpling meal for a flu-ridden friend, pushing a frightened, dithering lady’s car out of a snowy ditch while wearing your good shoes.

It’s those things that keep moods light during the grim winter months, bring people together, give them something to root for. The cold is as binding to that city’s soul as alcohol and music. It is there to break down walls in a place that could otherwise be just a hard, industrial wilderness. The cruel nights and bleak, unforgiving days smooth the way for what really makes Chicago hum and hiss and pitter and pat when most towns stop dead in their tracks, leaving citizens to hole up in their homes until the snow melts. They nurture real human interaction, great talks. The kinds of heart-to-hearts that don’t let you get away with not giving yourself away. That turn an acquaintance into a true friend.

I guess that’s what I miss most about Chicago winters. It’s their warmth.

chicago conversation

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12 Comments
  1. I have enjoyed some cool visits to Chicago as a tourist, but of course through your magnificent writing it is easy to fall in love with it. FUN thanks OH Anyone keeping in touch with the Australian?

    • We lost touch with the Australian when my roommate went to graduate school in Seattle and I moved to Prague. He was a sweetheart.

  2. Sounds exactly like the kind of winters I grew up with. We lived by a lake in Northern Ontario. With lake effect, we had a blizzard just about every weekend. I had to fight my way over the deep snow to the woodshed to collect more firewood.

    Thanks for sharing these nostalgic moments.

  3. I love the city. I used to fly there several times with the airline and loved everything about it. Great post ❤

  4. Thanks, Christoph. I wrote it at 4 AM. Hope it makes sense 🙂

  5. Nobody says it like Vic! I used to go to a Jazz place around Chicago and State – a basement place! Can’t think of the name – so many years ago, likely no longer there! I’ll probably awake in the middle of the night screaming the name! WAIT! I just got it! THE GATE OF HORN! — Happy you were able to go along with me through that process of remembering. 🙂

  6. Me, too, BR 🙂

  7. Holy smokes, this was too awesome! You brought me back to my recent Milwaukee years and the amazing spirit that people encompass there during the unforgiving winters. I never felt like a foreigner in Milwaukee, though I had grown up in Southern Cali and just moved from Texas. Everyone was welcoming and down-to-earth.

    I adore Chicago. We spent many weekends there—ahem, crazy weekends. We rarely went in the summer. My husband and I liked to get a hotel for the night and go out during the winter season, because it is truly magical.

    • It’s a whole different world, isn’t it, Britt? And I love Milwaukee. I would go up for weekends during college to visit friends at their school and always had a blast. The Midwest is underrated 🙂

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