Sunday, December 12, 2010

Part Fourteen: Baby It's Cold Outside

Part Fourteen: Baby It's Cold Outside

As I exit the Ogilvie Transportation Station on Madison, across the frozen Chicago River from the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, I immediately experience the frigid, midwestern winter wind pushing against me as I meander eastward toward my office at Jackson and Wabash, a little more than a mile away. My nostrils are frozen and my eyes burn slightly as the tear ducts stop working properly, while my ruddy cheeks and nose are reminiscent of vintage Thomas Nast Santa Claus print, which I suppose is seasonally appropriate.

Gradually, my extremities—especially my toes, inside my thin, black leather dress shoes—begin to grow numb and it feels as though my feet have become clunky, rectangular ice blocks supporting my six-foot two-inch frame. One must walk swiftly and with purpose toward his/her morning destination to avert the early onset of frostbite and hypothermia. Fortunately, there are several strategically placed, block-long office buildings through which one may walk to avoid the wind gusts and frigid temps along the route. (In particular, I'm fond of the Bank of America Building on LaSalle, which is roughly three quarters of the way to my office and just happens to have a coffee shop at ground level.)

With each step I can both feel and hear the familiar crunch of salt beneath my Johnston & Murphy wing-tips as I make my way along crowded city sidewalks past countless coffee shops beckoning me to enter for a warm cup of Joe. ... Thank God and Sam Houston for freshly brewed, legal, psychoactive stimulants. Mostly I look down toward my feet while walking alongside frigid fellow commuters to avoid looking directly into the wind and to sidestep the occasional ice patch. Every so often, however, I glance up to observe the bizarre winter fashion show taking place before me.

Just as Texans own lots of shorts and loose, thin summer clothes for the brutal stretch from mid-June to early-September when Lone Star State temperatures consistently reach triple digits, Chicagoans spend years amassing winter wardrobes and the attendant accessories to stay warm from early-December through mid-April. However, this wintry midwestern fashion show is not exactly haute couture. From coats and scarves to boots, hats and gloves, cold-weather fashion is excessively utilitarian and extremely difficult to match with any sense of style. In other words, it’s ugly, and at times it's downright hilarious.

Sartorial Splendor in the City of Big Shoulders at Seventeen Below

Winter fashions in the Windy City provide constant amusement for this Texpatriate. For example, consider the myriad ways to wear scarves during Chicago’s long winter: there's the “Thurston Howell, III” (i.e. a modified ascot); the Steve McQueen (i.e. one end of fabric flowing from the back like a race-car driver circa 1962); the Frosty-the-Snowman (i.e. wrapped around the neck multiple times); the “I-Just-Moved-Here-From-a-Warm-Climate-and-Haven't-Learned-How-To-Wear-a-Scarf-Yet” (i.e. wrapped around the neck in back and laying across the front, exposing the neck and sternum); the Doctor Zhivago, a.k.a. the Babushka (i.e. wrapped smartly around the head); the Clint Eastwood, a.k.a. the Hang 'Em High (i.e. resembles a noose, as worn by Clint in the opening scene of this classic Western, with the scarf folded in half and both ends pulled through the loop); and finally, the Mummy (i.e. the scarf/shawl/pashmina wrapped around not only the neck and head, but the entire torso). I prefer the Clint Eastwood—not just because he’s so cool, but also because it’s the best way to stay warm in sub-zero weather without looking (and feeling) like a complete fool.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Burberry plaid scarf, which may be worn in every style mentioned above. In the winter of ’98, a year after my arrival in the Windy City, it seemed as though every Chicagoan owned a plaid Burberry scarf—especially Old Town yuppies, Lincoln Park Trixies, North Shore socialites, and virtually everyone skulking around the Viagra triangle (i.e. located at Rush and Division; also known as the herpes triangle). The popularity of the Burberry pattern illustrates Chicagoans' penchant for conspicuous consumption as well as a Midwestern obsession with being as stylish as New Yorkers by wearing a garment purchased to obviate one's knowledge of and access to a semi-luxury brand. These plaid scarves are still very popular, though now they are decidedly outdated. Yet, they still annoy me. (Incidentally, it’s much easier to identify a fake Burberry scarf thirteen years later.)

Then there are winter coats, which come in all shapes and sizes, such as: the Snuggie, a.k.a the nylon blanket (i.e. the down coat that extends from the head to one’s ankles, typically worn by savvy Chicago women who know how to stay warm and who eschew fashion for comfort); the Krakauer, a.k.a. the Into Thin Air, (i.e. a Gore Tex shell, typically North Face, worn by options traders, bank tellers and men and boys under the age of 30 who haven't discovered the overcoat); the Basil Rathbone, a.k.a. the Sherlock (i.e. the omnipresent wool overcoat worn by sensible, stylish businessmen over the age of 30, not to mention 19th century British uber-detectives; however it doesn’t provide much warmth below 20 degrees…let's face it, fashion is a bitch); the Local 360, a.k.a. the Pipe-fitter Special (i.e. the puffy union bomber jacket replete with local union number and some old-world expression taken from a Wobblies or Teamsters manifesto); the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (i.e. colorful leather jackets that are walking advertisements for various hip-hop clothing brands and local sports teams); and the McGruff Crime Dog Special, a.k.a. the Bogart (i.e. the classic trench).

Coats and scarves are typically complemented by myriad winter accessories, from hats and gloves to earmuffs and 180s (i.e. 180s are earmuffs that wrap around the neck versus over the head), as well as boots and rubbers (i.e. rubber shoe covers). With all the required gear, it can easily take 20 minutes to get dressed for an outdoor excursion in winter. Dressing a family of four in this climate, including two young kids, is akin to a team of mountaineers gearing up at Everest base-camp for a summit attempt, albeit without oxygen tanks and crampons. Also, six-year olds are far more likely to lose a mitten between the front door and the car than an ice-climber suspended from a hanging belay at 8,000 meters in sub-zero weather.

"I think that’s how Chicago got started. A bunch of people in New York said, ‘Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough. Let’s go west.’" -- Comedian Richard Jeni

Every time I travel back home to Big D—or to any warm climate, for that matter—somebody will utter some variation of the following refrain: "Chicago...Oh, I could never live's much too cold!" In fact, I'd take Chicago winters to Texas summers any day. This always surprises the hell out of most folks, but it's true. (Of course, my wife claims that my core body temp on average is at least 115 degrees, as I'm perpetually hot regardless of the weather.)

More than the Cubs, the Bears, the Tower formerly known as Sears, the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, Lincoln Park, the Art Institute, or any of Chicago's myriad treasures, this city is known to outsiders for its cold, windy winters. Ironically, many of its citizens seem surprised each December when the mercury falls and they must drag all their winter gear and snow blowers out of storage. Every year, while riding the elevator or the train, a native Chicagoan will inevitably comment to me about the cold weather we're experiencing with utter shock and bewilderment, as if he/she forgot that it actually gets cold here. Apparently Chicagoans suffer from cold weather-dementia, whereby they forget we live in the northern part of the U.S. and it gets cold here in winter.

Even more common is the frequency with which folks here over the age of 60 proclaim that this will be their last Chicago winter. They are retiring, they explain, and moving south to Florida where they would rather endure hurricanes, alligators, strip malls, slow drivers, and a slew of contemptible college football teams than another Windy City winter.

I don't love the extreme cold and I loathe the severe wind that whirrs through the Loop during the winter months, especially at the corner of Wabash and Jackson, where my office is located. (This is the windiest corner in the city according to at least one website, which quotes both a local mailman and the architect of the Sears Tower regarding this odd weather factoid...hey, I read it on the Internet, so it must be true, right?) However, unlike extreme heat, I can eventually put on enough layers to mitigate the cold. One may only shed so many clothes in Texas (or Florida) on a 100+ degree-day in August, especially when wearing a wool suit to work each day. You simply can't escape the heat, especially when you're already perpetually hot (i.e. remember, my core body temp is at least 17 degrees above normal, per my wife).

Besides, if the alternative to life in Chicago is sweating my ass off in Florida like so many of my aged Windy City brethren, I'll take Chicago. After all, Florida is a humid, culturally bland swamp riddled with strip-malls and octogenarian drivers moving at least ten MPH below the speed limit. And as for Florida college football teams, which one cannot easily avoid while living there, I can only offer this perspective: if either the University of Florida or Florida State University (insert any college team from the Sunshine State) were playing the Taliban in football, I'd root for the Taliban. I think that pretty much sums up my feelings for Florida. Still, folks here seem to love it.

Loving Chicago is “…like loving a woman with a broken nose.” -- Nelson Algren

In spite of Chicagoans’ occasional cold weather-dementia and rampant obsession with moving to Florida—which I simply can’t abide—most folks in this town are generally prepared for the weather. In fact, most Chicagoans don’t seem to mind it too much.

Cold weather is part of Chicago’s DNA. Indeed, much like over-the-top political corruption, colorful neighborhood taverns, a tapestry of rich ethnic neighborhoods, magnificent art and architecture, perpetually lousy baseball teams (i.e. at least in Wrigleyville), rickety L trains snaking through immense skyscrapers, and hundreds of shops and shoppers along the Magnificent Mile, the excessively cold winter climate of this massive urban jungle rising abruptly from the heaving shores of Lake Michigan helps to shape the Windy City’s unique character. Without cold weather, Chicago simply wouldn't be...well, Chicago.

Chicago is a real city, and it’s a tough city. As early-20th century alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna once proclaimed, “Chicago ain’t no sissy town.” Ain't that the truth? Indeed, anyone who can survive daily exposure to winter elements on an elevated L platform while awaiting a train without complaining is a true Chicagoan. Shoveling snow and scraping ice off of car windows in sub-zero temperatures is a daily routine for millions in this sprawling metropolis, yet the city doesn’t slow down just because of cold, snowy, windy weather. (Back home in Big D, a mere dusting of snow is enough to cause panic; weathermen in Texas treat snow with the same excessive intensity as news of a terrorist plot or, God forbid, a Dallas Cowboys loss.) Unlike Paris or Manhattan or L.A., this town isn’t shiny and polished—It’s a real city with real people. As Nelson Algren once wrote about the Windy City, “Once you’ve come to this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin' Town

As I approach my destination following a visit to Intelligentsia Coffee, which brews the best java in the Loop, I have pretty much lost all feeling in my face, hands and feet. After negotiating the revolving door of my building, my gait resembles a toddler ambling toward his mother—simultaneously cautious and desperate, anxiously hoping to reach my destination without stumbling. My frozen mouth can't form words as I attempt to greet the doorman in my lobby, andafter uttering a few polysyllabic grunts, which to my chagrin, must pass as a morning helloI board the elevator and slowly begin to thaw. Eighteen floors later, upon entering my office, I unfurl my Eastwood knot on my grey, cashmere scarf, remove my wool overcoat (a Basil Rathbone special in charcoal with herringbone pattern) and turn on my computer. Within a few minutes my frozen muscles begin to function normally, and I can officially begin another great day in the Windy City.

[NB: Chicago’s nickname “The Windy City” is not weather-related. Rather, several 19th-century citations reveal that the nickname arose in connection with (1) the long-windedness of politicians; and (2) the city's many boosters who commended the western metropolis to the world's attention.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Part Thirteen: Windy City Culture—Highbrow, Lowbrow, Unibrow; or Why I Love This Crazy, Mixed-up Town

Part Thirteen: Windy City Culture—Highbrow, Lowbrow, Unibrow; or Why I Love This Crazy, Mixed-up Town

As I peer out my office window, eighteen stories above sea level, my western view of Chicago's Loop offers a rather strange perspective. If I look closely at the tall building a few blocks southwest of my building, past the postmodern gargoyles of the Harold Washington Library and to the south of the Tower formerly known as Sears—now known as the Willis Tower, a.k.a. The Big Willie, an apt name for the Midwest's largest and best known phallic symbol—I can see an odd building with rather severe architecture consisting of narrow slits for windows and a rooftop deck replete with a basketball court. The ball players all appear to be on the same team as they all wear identical orange jumpsuits.

Well, in one sense I guess they are all on the same team: they are all criminals in lockup at Cook County Jail—the odd-looking building with the narrow windows I mentioned above—awaiting trial for theft, murder, drugs, rape, armed robbery, jay walking, rooting for the Packers, voting Republican, hiring non-union employees, putting ketchup on a hot dog, serving as governor or alderman, graduating from a non-Big 10 school, speaking with a Texas accent (i.e. sounding like George W. Bush), generally having bad taste, and/or some other crime against the good citizens of Chicagoland. When I'm having a bad day at work it's helpful to glance at the never-ending inmate basketball tournament and remember just how good my life really is, especially as I reflect on the likely fate of these convicts at Menard Correctional Facility relative to the comforts of my cozy office on Jackson Boulevard.

My friend Erin, one of only a handful of people who follow A Texpatriate in the Windy City (NB: Texpat followers are a group of folks who apparently lead such boring lives that they actually spend precious time reading my whiny, unimportant, sophomoric drivel), asked me to try and write something positive about Chicago. (She's a proud native of Oak Park—the nearby western suburb better known as the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and the site of the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio—and a much better writer than I, so I felt obliged to compose a piece that articulates, in a roundabout way, a few of my favorite things about Chi-Town.) Of course, you may be wondering, then, why I chose to lead this piece with a description of my unobstructed view of Cook County Jail. (It really is a great view—and man, can those guys play ball, especially the guy in orange!) In truth, I love looking out at the inmates playing ball—it's one of my favorite views of this extraordinarily beautiful city. (You may also be wondering why I'm being so obviously self-referential...I can't help it as I cut my teeth as a reader in the post-modern era and my inner dialogue somehow seems perfectly natural. Blame David Foster Wallace, however unlike Wallace, at least I haven't added tons of footnotes—or committed suicide.)

Chicago is a culturally rich city replete with great art, architecture, music, food, beaches, cultural institutions, intellectuals, and myriad other treasures for which its residents should be—and are—proud. I'm proud of these things, too, but it's the unique, strange, colorful aspects of Chicago that I think I would miss most if I left someday. Indeed, it's the day-to-day things—like Chicago-style hot dogs at Super Dawgs on Milwaukee Ave, or the strange mix of humanity on the L trains, not to mention the parks and pubs and all-night diners—that I truly love about Chicago.

Highbrow, Lowbrow...Unibrow?

Two of the world's great cultural institutions are just a few steps from my office. These organizations—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute of Chicago—have entertained and civilized the Midwest's aggressively cultivated intelligentsia with richly toned Mahler symphonies and impressionistic Monet water lilies for decades. A block north one will find the post-modern sculpture and architecture of Jaum Plensa and Frank Gehry at Millennium Park, Chicago's latest cultural contribution. Soaring above this epic display of highbrow culture are early-20th century multistory masterpieces designed by virtually every great architect of the last century.

And just two blocks farther north, past the elegant, sloping curves of Gehry's chrome amphitheater, beyond the atonal dissonance of a Schoenberg fugue emanating from Symphony Center, one may choke down a “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! No Pepsi…Coke!” alongside countless grubby city workers and Tribune beat reporters at Billy Goat's Tavern—a subterranean greasy spoon made famous by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on SNL. After lunch, one may jump on the Sea Dog, a modified go-fast boat at Navy Pier, where one will be serenaded by the Edgar Winter Group’s classic “Free Ride” while riding 60 mph along the shores of Lake Michigan with dozens of tourists in tube socks and Brian Urlacher jerseys. Now, that's the Chicago way!

Chicago is a city of striking dichotomies. Highbrow, world-class art institutions coupled with complex global financial services and marketing firms thrive alongside crude, unsophisticated taverns and dives in perfect harmony. Indeed, a hedge fund trader applying abstruse quant theories in the derivatives exchanges during the day will rub shoulders with Medieval art curators and Chicago cops in south Loop pubs after work before returning to their penthouse condos, ornate Victorians, and shabby west-side row houses, respectively. Yet, each urban specimen can gracefully reference the new CSO conductor, Ricardo Muti, in casual conversation (e.g. "How 'bout that Muti guy, if only he played QB for Da Bears...I betcha Ditka could conduct the CSO if he wanted to...")

Chicagoans are equally proud of both their world-renown museums and their neighborhood taverns. In short, folks here are just as comfortable going to watch Da Bears as they are Da Symphony or Da Opera. Yet, residents of the Second City are fiercely protective of their city's status and are hyper-competitive when challenged regarding its place in the cultural hierarchy in the U.S.

Folks here are also quite serious about Windy City lowbrow culture, such as the ingredients of a Chicago-style hot dog or the best place to score a classic Italian beef sandwich. And so they should be. As a Texan who is fiercely protective of and opinionated about such cultural icons as the Alamo and Fort Worth's Kimball Museum as well as the sublime qualities of authentic TexMex and Texas BBQ, I fully appreciate Chicago’s loyalty to its institutions, including fine art as well as fine all beef hot dogs. Mmmm…hot dogs.

To some degree, every city's citizens are proud of both their highbrow and lowbrow cultural artifacts and icons (e.g. New Yorkers have MOMA and the Met, and they also have New York style pizza and egg creams, etc.), but Chicagoans are fiercely protective of these cultural elements in ways I have not witnessed elsewhere. In Chicago, one is just as likely to hear a discussion on Saul Bellow’s genius in his masterpiece Herzog as they are about the complete oeuvre of film director John Hughes (from the classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the now dated 1980s hit The Breakfast Club, to the rather unfortunate Uncle Buck).

Of course, in Chicago, the collective, simultaneous embrace of both highbrow and lowbrow culture can quickly descend into what I call “unibrow culture." For example, I routinely see CSO concert-goers dining at the nearby Al's Italian Beef before a performance of Stravinski or Debussy. Mmm...Italian Beef. Similarly, I once witnessed a pair of blue-collar workers—Sam and Marty, according to the names stitched on their tan Carhartt jumpsuits—on a northbound Red Line train discussing the Lyric Opera's latest production of Verdi's Otello with as much enthusiasm and sophistication as any music critic for the Tribune or the Sun Times, and perhaps more. Or consider the gentleman at the members' only night preview for an Ed Ruscha exhibit at the Art Institute wearing his gaudy Chicago Bears tie and matching orange socks—now that’s unibrow. (Except for the fact that he is a Bears fan—as a lifelong Cowboys fan, I cannot abide the Bears—I applaud this gratuitous display of unibrow culture. However, I do have a strict personal policy regarding ugly ties: from Jerry Garcia brand and NFL team logo ties to Snoopy holiday ties—these hideous faux-silk, Men’s Warehouse monstrosities have no business being wrapped around my neck, but others may do as they please at their own peril.)

Unibrow culture—the simultaneous embrace of both highbrow and lowbrow culture—is something to embrace, in my humble opinion. (Of course, actual unibrows should be manicured at the local salon, unless you're a 70's porn star or a third-world dictator, in which case they're perfectly acceptable, if not expected.) As a fan of both mindless Adam Sandler movies and lavish Peter Greenaway epics, I believe folks should diversify their interests to avoid being boring or overly serious. Just because one can quote Wordsworth shouldn't preclude one from also memorizing Bill Murray's Dali Llama soliloquy in Caddyshack. Life is too short to be one dimensional, so don't be a bore. And this should extend to all other parts of the cultural landscape, including all things gastronomic.

Foodies on Parade

Chicagoans love their restaurants. And in today's culture, the world of haute cuisine is just as hierarchical as the highbrow art scene—and even more frequently scrutinized and discussed, as it is far more accessible to the city's intelligentsia. Some folks may cultivate an interest in cubism or Italian opera, but everyone has to eat, and—much like art—wealthy folks tend to engage in conspicuous consumption when it comes to fine dining. Of course, the more the local elites eat, the more their hips and waistlines will begin to resemble one of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres's 18th century curvy French models. Apparently, life truly does imitate art.

Despite the Midwestern penchant for bland, meat-and-potatoes diet that seems to typify most cities in this region, Chicago actually has a rich, diverse array of authentic ethnic restaurants along with many excellent steak joints, not to mention several world-class, Michelin-rated establishments doing very creative things in the kitchen. Regarding this last point, there are several highly-rated restaurants to satisfy the growing population of foodies in the City of Big Shoulders (and even bigger waistlines). Indeed, from Topolobampo and Alinea to Schwa and Charlie Trotter's, Chicago's celebrity chefs are cooking up some pretty good grub. Looks like the city once known as "Hogtown" for its slaughterhouses, has finally hit the big time, gastronomically speaking.

There are so many good places to eat in Chicago that it's often difficult to decide where to go. And I am just as easily satisfied by a trip to the Taco and Burrito Palace #2 on Halsted near Fullerton as I am dining at (Oklahoma transplant) Rick Bayless's award winning Mexican restaurant Topolobampo. Most folks I know think I'm crazy or just plain gauche, but I simply like good food—especially good spicy, ethnic food—and I am equally comfortable in a dive or a four-star food palace. (unfortunately, I still haven't had an authentic TexMex meal in Chicago, so I have to load up when I'm visiting family back home in Big D.)

My wife and I love to eat out in Chicago, especially since as of late we both seem to be walking zombies with two full-time jobs, two young kids, and little appetite for cooking at home every night after a long day at the office. (I should mention that she is an excellent cook, while I can at least burn toast and brew coffee.) A few years ago, my brother—who is always extremely generous to his younger sibling in virtually every conceivable way—gave us a gift certificate for Charlie Trotter's (CT) valued at $200 for Christmas. We called to make reservations, which had to be scheduled several months in advance, and we began to anticipate an amazing, one-of-a-kind meal. On the day of our dinner reservation, we met after work in front of this fabled, quiet, elegant, highbrow restaurant in Lincoln Park, which has been considered one of the top 30 in the world. Upon entering the subdued establishment we were immediately led to our table, where customized menus (i.e. our names were at beautifully printed at the top, along with a note wishing us a happy anniversary) lay before us on top of beautiful fine china.

The CT menu was prix fixe and had both a vegetarian option as well as a selection with exotic game. I chose the meat-lovers menu while my wife chose the veggie. We also selected the wine pairing option, whereby the sommelier identified expensive wines tastings to accompany each course.

I’m not sure just how many courses we ate—somewhere between five and 23—but needless to say we were treated to extremely exotic, unique food creations that challenged both our palates and our perspectives on fine dining. The meal lasted about three hours and was extremely elaborate in virtually every respect. When the bill came, following our exotic, beautifully-staged meal, I presented our $200 gift certificate. The beautiful, thin, elegant waitress returned the bill, which required an additional payment. I anticipated paying another $100 or so, but when I looked at the bill I realized I still owed another $450. I gasped, then looked at my wife and explained how much we still owed. Astonished, she looked at me and said something to the effect of, "holy shit!" and then,"well at least we ate here once."

As we got in our car, following our meal, my wife looked at me and proclaimed, "I'm still hungry." I wasn't particularly hungry, but I can always eat a burger, so on the way home I went through the Steak 'n Shake drive-thru, where we both ordered hamburgers, fries and a pair of chocolate milkshakes, all for about $12. We gobbled this lowbrow "second" meal down, and it may have been the best hamburger either of us had tasted in months.

That night, we officially enjoyed a unibrow moment, and it was truly glorious in all it's elegant, expensive, greasy splendor. Incidentally, I enjoyed the game, but my palate is clearly not refined enough to appreciate a $650 meal. Still, it was quite a thrill to dine at one of the city's—indeed the country's—finest restaurants. But I'm also just as thrilled to have countless greasy spoons nearby.

Some Final Thoughts...

Chicago is a remarkable city chock full of extraordinary examples of refined art, literature, music, theater, and dining, as well as countless dive bars, taverns, greasy spoons, and myriad examples of lowbrow culture all coexisting in harmony. And it is this constant juxtaposition of highbrow and lowbrow—a.k.a. unibrow—culture that chicagoans embrace, and which makes this town so livable.

As a native Texan, the Windy City may not be my home, but it's a great place to live. However, it definitely has its challenges and its downsides. For instance, just last week my friend Erin, who inspired this piece, was mugged on the Blue Line during her commute home to Oak Park. As one who loves her hometown, and who could probably use some cheering up regarding life in Chicago, I am hopeful she will enjoy this latest installment of the Texpat, and I hope it reminds her of all the great things this extraordinary city has to offer.

Epilogue: they arrested Erin's mugger, and last Friday she testified against him. Who knows, maybe she can stop by my office in a few weeks and watch her assailant play ball at Cook County Jail and know there is justice, even in the Windy City.

NB: All photos taken with my Blackberry

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Part 12.5: Claws and Antlers

Part 12.5: Claws and Antlers

Hell Has Frozen Over

On Sunday night my dad left me a voice mail, exclaiming, “Hell has officially frozen over!” Of course, he was referring to the Texas Rangers’ historic trip to the World Series. As I sit and write this on the commuter train I still can't believe it myself. The only thing more surprising in baseball would be the Cubs winning the pennant, but we all know that is pure fantasy. (Never fear, Cubbies, I still love you...there's always next year, again...)

As a Dallas kid in the late-1970s and early-1980s I believed there were several certainties in life: death; taxes; inflation; 100 degree heat in August (especially when the lawn needs mowing); the Cowboys will always make the playoffs (and the Oilers won't); disco sucks, heavy metal rocks; Elvis is still the King; I will always dine on Fletcher’s corny dogs at the State Fair of Texas every October; I will always dress like Gene Simmons (of Kiss) for Halloween; the lines at the gas station sure are long; when E. F. Hutton talks, apparently people listen; All My Children’s Susan Lucci will always lose the daytime Emmy award; Scooby Doo is on at 9:00 AM every Saturday after The Super Friends; and the Texas Rangers are losers and always will be.

Or so I thought...

Seasons In Hell

The Dallas Cowboys have always been our family's first sports team—especially since my dad worked for them from the early-1970s until the late-1990s—but we always enjoyed attending Rangers games, too. They were fun, inexpensive entertainment, and the ball and bat nights provided cheap, functional treasures replete with Rangers logos to thousands of kids like me several times each summer. The Rangers of the 1970s and 1980s were truly bad, but we loved 'em anyway. I have many fond memories from the old Stadium in Arlington watching sluggers Mike Hargrove, Jim Sundberg, Toby Harrah, and Buddy Bell belt the long ball while I watched from the cheap seats as they tried to help one pathetic Rangers team after another win a few games despite consistently terrible pitching. These years were chronicled in a great book called Seasons in Hell, by Mike Shropshire. Shropshire describes a franchise where no one could play ball, but everybody could drink, chase women and use so-called “ability pills”—amphetamines.

Then, in 1989 baseball's tectonic plates shifted just slightly when Nolan Ryan joined the Rangers. Ryan was already guaranteed a spot at Cooperstown, but when he joined the Rangers he continued to put up huge numbers (Ks, no-hitters, etc) and folks in the Metroplex began to pay attention. In the summer of 1990 I was lucky enough to witness Ryan pitch a complete game from a seat just a few rows behind home plate a couple weeks after his first no-hitter in a Ranger uniform, and I was mesmerized by his fastball the entire game. He became not only my favorite Texas Ranger that day, but my all-time favorite ballplayer.

To this day, my favorite image in MLB history is the 1993 photo of 46-year-old Nolan Ryan with 26-year-old Robin Ventura of the White Sox in a headlock after Ventura took a fastball in the back and stormed the plate. Ryan manhandled him with a few solid uppercuts, then Ventura got ejected along with the Sox manager. It was beautiful. Now that I'm in Chicago, I love that photo even more—especially since I follow the Cubs versus the White Sox. (see Part Two: Transcendent Rivalries)

In the early 1990s we had the Three Amigos—Julia Franco, Rubin Sierra, and Juan Gonzalez—who brought slugging power to Arlington, while Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, the best catcher around, prevented more stolen bases than anyone else in MLB. And of course, it was around this time that a guy named George (a.k.a. “W”) bought the team and built a new stadium before moving to Austin and then D.C. where he managed to help us forget how much we liked him as the affable, fun-loving owner of the Rangers.

Elvis + Rangers = Nirvana

From an utterly self-centered, narcissistic perspective, which I believe pretty much sums up the fundamental concept of sports fandom, (e.g. my team is great because: they're from my city, they’re from my alma mater, I like their red and blue uniforms, they're not the freakin' Yankees, etc.), this year’s World Series seems tailor-made for this Texpatriate. Let’s consider the basic facts: the 2010 World Series for the Rangers was 39 years in the making, much like me (disclosure: I turn 40 in January); and they have a shortstop named Elvis (Elvis Presley and I share a birthday and are thus cosmic soul brothers; I even composed a master’s thesis on the King just to prove my fealty…if you think I’m bullshitting you, check out the Colorado State University online card catalog: Seriously, how can one root against Elvis? Also, the Cowboys are pitiful this year, which means folks in DFW are less distracted by games at Jerryworld, which is just a few feet away from The Ballpark. And Nolan Ryan, a true Texas hero—and the only player in the Hall of Fame in a Rangers uniform—is the team’s president and co-owner. I mean, seriously, how can this 2010 team not be destined for greatness? (Knock wood. I may believe my own hype but that doesn't mean I'm not superstitious. This is baseball, after all.)

Now the Rangers—destiny’s team, at least in my humble opinion—even have a ridiculous hand-signal gimmick, which I fully support. And why not? If the Angels can have “Rally Monkey” and the Giants' fans can intimidate opponents with “Fear the Beard” —which I think should be more aptly called “Fear the Just For Men" ‘cause that beard color on closer Brian Wilson ain’t real—it’s only natural that a Texas team should have its own gimmick.

Of course, being a team from Texas requires hand-signals. After all, in a state with UT's “Hook ‘em Horns,” A&M's “Gig ‘em Aggies,” Texas Tech's “Guns Up” —not to mention SMU’s sublime (okay, so I’m biased) “Pony Ears” —the Rangers are only following a Lone Star tradition.

According to Ranger Julio Bourbon, in an interview with the Fort Worth Star Telegram, when a Texas player does something positive offensively he'll “acknowledge his feat with a ‘claw,’ fingers slightly curled with his arm extended in a rising swoop. The ‘antlers’—hold both hands open above the ears to imitate a deer—come about after something speed-related…because when a deer gets going that's what you look like when you run all the way from first to third and then beat out a throw at the plate.”

As far as I'm concerned, the stars have aligned. Hell, even Susan Lucci eventually won a daytime Emmy—surely the Rangers deserve their time in the spotlight!

…all This Texpat can say is “Claws and Antlers.” Go Rangers!!

(Okay…so as I post this we’re down 0-2 and headed back to Texas…it ain’t over as 11 teams have come back from such a deficit to win the Series. Don’t lose hope!)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Part Twelve: If It’s October, It Must Be Fair Day

Part Twelve: If It’s October, It Must Be Fair Day

“You asshole!” I yell at the driver in front of me after he cuts me off then proceeds to drive significantly below the speed limit while simultaneously gabbing on the cell phone and scanning for a place to park his BMW. Finally he identifies a rather diminutive parking spot and tries parallel parking while talking on the phone. His attempt at squeezing into a tight parking space while engrossed in an important phone call to his bookie, his Rogaine consultant or his proctologist—or to whomever the hell he’s talking—is downright comical, especially since he’s driving a stick-shift and is precariously holding the phone between his left ear and shoulder.

As Johnny Cell Phone attempts to squeeze his Beemer (or Bimmer, as it’s known to auto snobs) into the parking space—hitting the bumpers of the cars fore and aft—the little red sports car stutters forward and backward at least three times without much success before stalling out. Apparently he can't drive a stick much better than he can parallel park. Just then, he drops his phone into his lap, which briefly causes him to suspend his failed parking attempt to look for his phone. (His cell phone skills are commensurate with both his driving and parking deficiencies.) As he searches his crotch for the Blackberry, his BMW’s front end blocks the lane before me causing drivers in the ever-growing traffic jam behind to begin laying on their car horns, creating an atonal, postmodern cacophony which I find strangely reminiscent of a Schoenberg concerto. (Okay, so perhaps I have unusual tastes and ridiculous reference points, but bear with me.) The asshole before me is, of course, oblivious to all this noise and commotion and continues to talk on the phone. When he finally parks, his car is at least two feet farther into the intersection than every car in front and behind him.

As I drive by I yell, “asshole” again, and I give him the obligatory angry, condescending glare that drivers in Chicago learn to master within a month of residency. Ah…driving in Chicago…good times…sometimes it seems every journey in the Windy City includes at least one incident involving an asshole with a cell phone. (To be fair, Chicago doesn’t have a monopoly on annoying cell phone usage by asshole drivers.)

Anyway...once I resume driving I try to relax so that I may focus on the day’s task: to cheer the Longhorns on to victory. Driving north through Evanston on a cloudy Saturday morning in early-October en route to Tommy Nevin’s, a local Irish pub with lots of HD flat screen TVs and ice-cold Guinness, not to mention Chicagoland's best fish and chips (in this humble Texpat’s opinion), I open the window to rest my elbow comfortably on the car door so that I may feel the cool breeze outside. After a long, hot summer I can officially turn the Jeep’s AC off for the season. Thank God and Sam Houston for fall weather.

I’m not a Texas Ex (the euphemism for University of Texas alumni)—though both my late grandmothers along with several aunts and uncles are UT alumni—but as a life-long fan of Texas football, not to mention a Texpatriate living in Chicago, I always enjoy cheering for the Longhorns to celebrate my Texanism alongside other Texpats. Today is the annual Red River Shootout, a.k.a. the Texas-OU game to most longtime fans (or the OU-Texas game to folks on the other side of the Red River). Every Longhorn game is important, but none compares with the legendary rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma, which has been played annually in Dallas since 1912, except for three years: 1913 (Houston), 1922 (Norman, OK) and 1923 (Austin). Since 1932 it has been played annually at the Cotton Bowl—typically in October (i.e. during my lifetime, anyway)—during the State Fair of Texas. This year Oklahoma is favored after UT's embarrassing loss to UCLA last week. I hope to witness a Longhorn victory, but I'm not exactly oozing with confidence after giving up so many turnovers to the Bruins.

The annual Texas-OU game always brings back a flood of childhood memories. However, while these memories certainly include football—as do most memories of fall, especially for kids raised in Texas—the Texas-OU game mostly reminds me of a fantastic, bizarre, beautiful world just outside the entrance to the Cotton Bowl: the State Fair of Texas.

“Howdy Folks, This is Big Tex”

Autumn is my favorite season. It always has been. In both Dallas and Chicago, the month of October brings so many good things. Cool weather. Friday Night Lights (i.e. high school football). College football. Dallas Cowboys football. (Did I mention I like football?) A new school year. Sweaters and jackets. Comfort food. Turning leaves and changing colors. Halloween. Halloween candy. More Halloween candy. Thanksgiving turkey (and, naturally, Dallas Cowboys football on Thanksgiving day). And, of course, autumn in Dallas in its red-burnt orange splendor is synonymous with the State Fair of Texas.

Every year on this day—when Texas and Oklahoma square off at the Cotton Bowl in Big D—I am reminded of a favorite long-standing tradition shared by Metroplex schoolchildren each year: Fair Day. Every October, from kindergarten through high school, teachers throughout North Texas passed out little red tickets that provided free admission to the State Fair of Texas. Every school district in and around DFW was assigned a particular “fair day” in October, and each district closed on its assigned day to allow students and their families to visit the fair.

Presumably there was some educational or pedagogic purpose to shortening the school year by one day to allow kids like me to run wild amongst carnies, freaks, hustlers and rickety old rides across cotton candy-sticky paths through the Midway in order to glean a bit of Texas culture from the fair's many exhibits. Over the years I probably missed important lesson plans involving differential equations, quantum physics, Hegelian philosophy, or large-animal husbandry as a result of the truncated curriculum to accommodate fair day, but it was worth it.

Perhaps the intended purpose of fair day was educational, but in reality we tended to think of it as an excuse to eat as much fried food and candy apples and drink as much root beer (i.e. until high school, where it was replaced with Pabst Blue Ribbon) as possible before riding roller coasters and other spine-jarring adventures of the Midway that would inevitably make you vomit. And when I say fried food, I really mean Fletcher’s corny dogs, a staple at the Fair. In hindsight, perhaps the combination of corny dogs, candy apples, root beer (much less PBR) and rickety roller coasters is not ideal. But it sure was a hell of a lot of fun.

The State Fair of Texas is a magical place, especially to impressionable kids raised during the Carter Administration. Upon entering the Fair, one immediately spies Big Tex—a giant, stiff-moving, fiberglass robot-like statue wearing Lee Jeans (or Wrangler, or Levi's, or Dickey’s, or whichever denim company has the current contract)—who greets all visitors with his Texas accent accompanied by stiff, jerky mandibular movements reminiscent of Howdy Doody or one of the various 70s claymation TV shows (e.g. Thunderbirds, Davey and Goliath, etc.). In hindsight it seemed that every family visiting the Fair agreed to rally after a full day of fried food and Midway games near Big Tex. As a result, the perimeter surrounding this 52 foot iconic statue—who wears size 70 boots and a 75 gallon hat—was jam packed with bustling crowds eating every type of fried food imaginable, transforming this tiny space into the center of the Texas universe each October day after 3:00 PM. How can one be a real Texan and not love Big Tex? After all, he's not Big Iowa or Big Nebraska, much less Big Illinois…he's Big “Freakin” Tex.

However, apart from its myriad kitschy aspects, including the Midway and Big Tex, the Fair is actually a rather beautiful place. The area known as Fair Park, which was built for the Texas Centennial in 1936, hosts the world’s best collection of existing 1930s art deco architecture, all of which was restored over the last couple decades. It’s easy to overlook the simple lines and elegant design of the fair’s classic buildings—from the Hall of State and the Women’s Building to the Food and Fiber Pavilion, not to mention the world-famous Cotton Bowl—while eating a fried Frito pie or fried butter or fried anything-on-a-stick and gulping down an ice-cold Shiner Bock. But resting on a bench along the Esplanade or along the path near Leonhardt Lagoon one can truly enjoy the sublime beauty of Fair Park.

There are so many things to love about the State Fair of Texas. For any kid like me who experienced Fair Day in the late-1970’s the following childhood memories are likely to be both shared and beloved: Fletcher’s Corny Dogs. Jack's Fries. The auto show. Auto show models. The livestock show. The Midway. Midway games of chance (especially throwing a ring around the bottle or quarters on a saucer, etc). Plush prizes won on the Midway. The roller coaster and the myriad haunted houses. Fresh, home-made root beer. Cotton candy. Candy apples (NB: I lost a baby tooth or two on these). The Freak Show (affectionately known as “Circus Strange People," which included: “World's Smallest Mother, World’s Fattest Man, Rubber Boy, Tattooed Lady, Giant Snake, Midget Snake Wrestler, and Princess Uraana the Ape Girl,” among others). The Swiss Sky Ride (i.e. an aerial tram, which closed in 1979 after a fatal accident that killed a man). The Ferris Wheel. The Cotton Bowl. Eating a corny dog on the steps of the Cotton Bowl's main entrance. The empty blue and green seats of the Cotton Bowl following a game or a marching band competition. Fried everything. Tattooed carnies. Big-haired ladies selling home-made quilts. The Food and Fiber Pavilion. Food at the Food and Fiber Pavilion. The grand Esplanade. The Leonhardt Lagoon with its dragon-like terra cotta earth sculpture. Big Tex, obviously. And did I mention Fletcher's hand-made, deep-fried corny dogs? (A brief word on Freak Shows: the world’s fattest man in the late ‘70s is about the average size of the typical Texas suburbanite today, and the tattooed lady of that era looks like the typical college student in 2010.)

The afternoon of the Texas-OU game is perhaps the most exciting and electric four hours each fall at Fair Park. Ironically, what I remember most about this annual football tradition from a patchwork of collected childhood memories is not attending the game. Rather, I vividly recall sitting on the steps of the Cotton Bowl beneath the October sun just outside the stadium's main entrance during the second quarter eating one of Fletcher's finest, drinking a home-made root beer, and listening to cheers from the enormous crowd just over the stadium wall behind me following a big play.

As I looked behind me past the ticket takers and through the opening gate I could barely glimpse a narrow sliver of the reddish-orange crowd through the tunnel that led to a high-dollar section along the 50 yard-line. Resting on the steps outside the Cotton Bowl listening to the muffled screams and muted clapping was, strangely, more exciting than sitting in the blue-green seats cheering for the Longhorns. The episodic roar of the crowd that hinted at a long pass or a turnover, and the sounds of crestfallen fans oohing and ahhing after a near-touchdown pass provided a sublime soundtrack as I sat and soaked in the Fair's exotic sights, smells and sounds. Repetitive echoes of “Texas Fight” played over and over by the Longhorn Marching Band coupled with periodic crowd bursts pouring over the walls and seeping through the tunnels of the Cotton Bowl was downright exhilarating, and I wondered what had happened or who had scored.

Following the game, fans emptied the Cotton Bowl turning the Midway into a pointillistic mixture of burnt orange and red. As dusk approached, the red-orange setting sun blended with the Texas-OU colored-apparel on the multitude of fans before me and it seemed God was smiling down on Big D.

Hook 'em Horns

Back in Evanston…as I look for a parking place within a half-mile of Tommy Nevin’s Pub—a process that will likely take at least 20 minutes and several challenging U-turns—a smile overcomes my face as I recall fond memories spent with family and friends eating corny dogs and watching college football. My tense shoulders ease and my white-knuckled hands relax on the steering wheel, and I can forget the bad drivers and congestion and noise of Chicago all around me. I am calm in the bosom of childhood memories replete with the fragrance of corny dogs and candy apples and the sounds football on a cool, autumn day back home in Big D.

Regardless of the outcome of today’s game, I will look up to the TV screen to see colorful, high-definition images of the storied Cotton Bowl and remember the resplendent, joyous, care-free afternoons from my Texas childhood. And I thank God and Sam Houston for college football at Fair Park on a cool, autumn day in Dallas.