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. Mmm...coffee ... 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 there...it'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, and—after uttering a few polysyllabic grunts, which to my chagrin, must pass as a morning hello—I 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.]