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