I just got on the ‘EL’ at Merchandise Mart. The Merchandise Mart is a concrete monstrosity (it’s not that ugly, but monstrosity is a cool word) that was opened in 1930. The Marshall Field’s Company built it, and owned it until that Kennedys bought it. Yes those Kennedys. It is 25 stores tall, but has a whopping 4,000,000 square feet of floor space! Mental right? You can access the Merchandise Mart El stop from the building, which is what I did. I’m only going one stop: to Chicago. That’s the name of the stop. I’m already in the city, silly. The station is on Chicago Avenue.
I first set foot on Chicago’s soil on Chicago Ave. That’s not quite true. O’Hare is officially in Chicago, but the map was completely gerrymandered for its inclusion. See that piece of the city in the very Northwestern corner of the map? Yeah, that’s O’Hare.
Anyway. Back to stepping out of my first American cab ride, on the corner of Chicago and Rush. I had come to Chicago for the summer of 2001 with eleven other 23 year olds. Bring it on bee-atch! My bestie from college has a brother who lives in Chitown (such a non-Chicagoan thing to say). That’s why she was heading to Chicago. My non-college bestie and I tagged along. We met her at her brother’s place downtown. I was amazed by the city. The skyline is stunning coming in from O’Hare. I had never been in a city with so many skyscrapers. I’d been in London, but never where the tall buildings were. Anywho. Back to June 18, 2001. My love affair started that day, on that corner. I have to admit, it took two weeks to understand what everyone was saying, and get used to the money. You’d think watching American TV from an early age, would have clued me into the accent. Nope. I was shocked.
Oh yeah. Then there’s the cops. They all have guns. Now I knew this before I went, but it took me a long time to get used to it. I mean ten years. Anytime I was in Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts behind a cop, I would literally stare at his gun (get your minds out of the gutter – his sidearm). Mind you, I did date a cop for a while, and he’d leave his gun on the dresser while we were, eh, busy. Anyway. I’m over the whole gun thing now, and don’t look like a criminal eyeing how I’m going to disarm a cop. That might be dangerous. Most of them are lovely. I’ve known a few personally (including date cop) and they’ve been cool. As in nice, not shit-cool. I’ve had a drunken argument with a cop, and I have to say he kept surprisingly calm. Rolls reversed, and I would have arrested me. Good thing the roles weren’t reversed!
Back to the El. I love the El. Mostly. Once I get a seat, that is. It puts me in a chill mood. I’ve got my music. No one bothers me. I sit in blissful ignorance as I speed towards my destination. Mostly. Now the blue and red lines – different story. They are the two 24\7 train lines. They attract people who want to ride the train all night, but stay on during the day too. It can lead to… How should I say this? Interesting rides.
Also since we’re talking about the El… My husband and I were heading home from an appointment downtown on June 29, 2017. It had been raining. The blue line is underground downtown. We went down one flight into the station, and headed for the stairs down to the platform. I was on the second step, when I slipped due to my wet gym shoes. I knew straight away my arm was broken. It wasn’t even that I felt pain, just that my whole lower arm felt numb and weird. I looked at it and knew it wasn’t quite right. When I got to the hospital I kept saying to the nurse that maybe it wasn’t broken after all. She took one look at it and laughed.
Michigan Avenue – also known as The Magnificent Mile (or The Mag Mile to us cool people). It’s one block over from my friend’s brother’s old place. I was really blown away. It is full of shops, a lot of which are very expensive. I rarely shop on it myself, but it has wide sidewalks (paths for Irish folk), which are beautifully landscaped. One of my favorite things to do in summer, is to walk down Michigan avenue from Chicago, to Adams. That’s 10 blocks, 1¼ miles. I lost a ton of weight pounding the pavement on the avenue.
My first apartment in Chicago was on Fullerton and Clark. My college bestie, non-college bestie, and I rented it for our summer stay. It was in this apartment that we learned of the events of September 11th. We were all asleep after a heavy night out. Morning out actually. We got home at 05:00, which is 06:00 in New York. Just a couple of hours before the first plane hit. We were woken by our landline ringing. None of us had cell phones with us in 2001. Three of my friends from Ireland had come to visit us. One of their parents called. They wanted to make sure we weren’t planning to go downtown. There were still many planes in the air, and rumors were that one was headed for The Sears Tower. It was and still is the tallest building in The U.S. – bigger than The World Trade Center towers were.
Trivia: Note that building in the bottom left of the picture? That’s The Chicago Hilton and Towers. I worked there from December 2003 – January 2006.
Anyway. We assured her parents we were staying where we were, about three miles from downtown. We got them to call all of our parents, because the lines were jammed. We went to a bar around the corner, where we watched events unfold. We saw both towers fall, and were just as shocked and disgusted as every American. Five of our friends were supposed to fly out to New York that day, and then home a few days later. Obviously when the airports opened five days later, they flew straight to Dublin. The three of us who lived together all worked in an Irish neighborhood bar. My college friend had a shift that night. We all went in. The mood was very somber. Everyone in the bar, staff and customers alike, watched George W. Bush give his speech that evening. Whatever everyone’s political views were, we all had a lot of respect for him that night. We felt everyone needed to get behind the country and the government. I worked the next morning. To get to work, I needed to take a bus to Chicago Avenue (downtown), and the Chicago bus #66 west. I was standing waiting for the #66, and could not stop staring at The Sears Tower. I was not scared. I knew all the planes had been grounded, and The Air Force were out in droves, but I just kept imagining a plane crashing into it. It was an eerie feeling.
The rest of our trip flew by in a fog. I was the last to leave Chicago on September 27th. I was devastated. I had an amazing summer there for the most part, and didn’t want to leave. One of the owners of the bar I had worked in gave me a ride to the airport. He’d been very helpful all summer. He takes care of the Irish Summer students each year. On the car ride to O’Hare I kept looking back at the skyline, worried I’d never see it again. I cried on the plane half the way home.
Fast forward to two years later… I somehow managed to get a green card and emigrated to Chicago on August 8, 2003. I came on my own, knowing my former boss, and one other person. I was hired straight back at the bar I had worked in two years earlier. My first shift at J. Patricks in River West, was the day after I arrived. I quickly made friends, in other words drinking buddies. I did not exactly see eye to eye with the owner\manager, as many others didn’t. I drunkenly bad-mouthed him, for which I was rightfully fired. I was unemployed for a few weeks, before starting in The Hilton. I loved working there. Almost all the staff were Irish, and had no family over here. We all became each others’ family. The money was decent, we had great health insurance, and the work itself was fun. The only problem was alcohol. Every single day we went out drinking after work. We always got wasted, and this proved to be hard on the pocket as well as our livers! Mostly we went to George’s Lounge, owned by Nick the Greek. Always in a suit, always dripping in gold jewelry. It was a poky dive, but a riot most of the time. There were always characters in there, and often conventioneers from the Hilton, who we’d served earlier in the day. We were often being brought out by them, which was nice and saved a few bills. There were plenty of evenings, nights and early mornings spent dancing on the bar, roaring out ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ at the top of our lungs. Especially in the run up to The Sox winning The World Series in 2005.
In 2006 I had my first child, a daughter, and my first heart surgery. A crazy hectic wonderful year. I got my first ‘real’ job in 2007. I was never meant to sit at a desk. It tore at my very soul. My son arrived in 2008. A much easier pregnancy. I still worked in the same place until 2010. It was still soul destroying. I loved being a bartender and a server, not a robot. I moved to The University of Chicago in 2010, to more of the same robotic work. I didn’t know how to switch gears. Everyone advised me to go back to school, but it wasn’t a matter of switching to another field, it was the whole concept of ‘real’ work that I hated. Maybe I should have been a ranch hand in Oregon. Shame I’m not into animals (sacrilege I know), and I loved the big city. I had my third and final (I hope!) child in 2012. A little girl. I had my second heart surgery in 2014. I gave birth to my dog, Jake, in December 2015.
I lasted at U of C until December 2016, when I plunged into a severe deep depression. I was let go for missing too much time. It is April 2018. I have been off work for nearly 16 months. I absolutely cannot stomach the thought of returning to an office job. I fear I may have to. Ideally I would like to write the novel of the century, and make my millions! There are two problems with this genius plan. (1) I have no money to get me through until I finish the novel. (2) I’m not a great writer. These are probably quite significant road blocks to success. So now what? Stay unemployed (and broke) forever. My husband works, and earns a decent wage. His health insurance is ridiculously expensive though – $900 every two weeks! What the fuck? I guess I’ll have to do my own heart surgery if I need a third go on the table. I’d say that might be a little hard. What with the agony of sawing my sternum open while awake, and the whole not being able to see what I was doing, or reaching into the chest cavities. Oh – and there’s the whole not having being trained as a cardio thoracic surgeon. God loves a trier however. I won’t rule it out.
I’m still on Long Term Disability from a plan I had through my employer. Once that runs out we’re screwed. It can last for up to two years, so December 29th 2018. However, the LTD company expect you to apply for Social Security Disability. If I get it, then my better, more lucrative private LTD goes away, and with it the health insurance. Then I get to apply for government health insurance, which is shite, and there go all my doctors. I’m petrified. So basically, I need to find a job with amazing health insurance – NOW! Any ideas?
I’m sitting here in my house, on the Northwest side of Chicago. I have three kids in elementary school. My husband works 56 hours a week (or more). I was working 37.5 hours until my departure from U of C. We worked, ate, slept, rinse, repeat ad. Nauseam. Don’t get me wrong. I still love Chicago, but I could work, sleep, and eat in Dublin just as well. I feel like I minimal opportunity to enjoy what this great city has to offer. Maybe the depression is making me feel like that. Maybe when the kids grow up, I’ll start having more free time, and become adventurous again. Or maybe the weather will piss me off enough to move south. Not too far mind you. I don’t think I could handle that!
Speaking of the weather. It really is crazy here. From boiling summers to freezing (no really) winters. Lots of images warning here… Winter 2013/14 was nuts. In early January a Polar Vortex hit and we had record low temperatures. The temperate got down to a frigid -16F (-27C) with a wind chill (how cold it feels on skin) of -42F (-41C). Chicago was dubbed Chiberia by The National Weather Service. We bundled the kids up one night and brought a kettle of boiling water outside. Standing with our backs to the wind, we threw the water in the air. It turned to steam instantly. A TV new anchor appeared on TV outdoors. He poured a bottle of water on a t-shirt. The t-shirt froze within seconds.
This is my favorite thing to come out of that winter. Not only did we have two polar vortexes, the whole winter’s temperatures were well below normal, and we had tons of snow. It was by far the worst winter I’ve gone through here. Tons of people swore they would move out of Chicago, certainly if it happened again. The next year was nearly as bad. We’re still in Chicago.
Another thing about Chicago, is its love of all things sports. We are a sports crazy city. There are five major sports teams in the city. Do not stand between a Chicagoan and his sports team. The Blackhawks (hockey – ice hockey to foreigners), The Cubs (Baseball), The White Sox (baseball), The Bulls (basketball), and The Bears (football – American football to foreigners).
The Blackhawks have won The Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013, and 2015. The Cubs won The World Series in 2016, after a 108 year dry spell. The White Sox won The World Series in 2005. The Bulls were legendary in the 90s, when Michael Jordan was playing. They won in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998. The Bears have not won since 1985. The team was legendary back then, when Mike Ditka was couch. He is still very much loved in Chciago.
Unlike most European sports, where alcohol is strictly forbidden in stadia, Americans love to mix their sports and their beer. No game is complete without a rake of booze. In football, those who do not go into the stadium, stay outside and tailgate. Tailgating means eating and drinking from the flap/door (tailgate) at the back of a pickup truck. So basically people drive and go get shit-faced, and no one does anything about it. In Ireland you’d have the GardaÍ (cops) breathalizing every sucker driving out of there, but hey, this is Chicago, and that’s just what they do.
Related to this is the consumption of alcohol in general. So we all know The Irish have a reputation for being huge drinkers. Well holy crap. When I came here I was shocked. We’re nothing compared to Chicago drinkers. They drink morning, noon and night. Any reason or no reason. Baseball is played every day for six months out of the year – great excuse to drink. Football, hockey, and basketball fill the rest of the year with plenty of excuses. Lots of people have boats, and drink-steer on the lake. People drink in bars, on tailgates, at kids birthdays, at Halloween if the weather’s nice enough to sit out on the porch. That’s another thing. Those of us in houses all have porches and decks (wooden patio that’s level with the house, but raised above the garden). Since the summer is lovely and warm, it’s a great excuse to sit out on either and booze. Also pretty much every restaurant has its own bar. Bars here are also very well stocked. Which of the 732 whiskies would you like to try, sir?
I mentioned a dive bar earlier. Dive bars are something to aspire to be in, not to look down on. They are edgy, cool, and real, man. I have to admit, I am (was) partial to a good dive bar. They are everywhere. They almost all have the same type of uncomfortable stools: Metal legs, with a round red or black soft type. I’m not sure if these bars are a Chicago thing, or an American thing. Now I know there are some shitholes in Ireland, but that’s usually because the owner is too broke to clean it up. It’s not an attraction. No one wants to go to shitty bars back home. I was known to frequent this gem below, The Gold Star on Division Street, in 2003/4. It has a regular fridge in it that holds most of the beer.
The Lake is a focal point in Chicago. Whenever people give directions, its often to go towards the lake, or away from the lake. If people get turned around, they ask – which way is the lake? Lakeshore drive runs is a four lane road (not considered a highway) that runs from way up North to way down South of the city. It is 16 miles long, and has six parks along it. There is a bike and pedestrian path on the lakefront, and several beaches. We may be 1,000 miles from the Ocean, but we have beautiful beaches. In the summer the lake is full of boats, jet skiers, and swimmers. Even in February we have The Polar Plunge, where brave idiots go into the lake in frigid weather. In 2014, Jimmy Fallon asked our Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel to be on his show. Emmanuel had been Barack’s White House Chief of Staff for two years. He quit to run for the Mayor’s office. So he was a reasonably big fish for Fallon to catch. Emmanuel said he would go on the show, if Fallon would do the Polar Plunge with him. Hilarity ensued! Now remember – 2014 was that brutal winter. Mind you, who cares if its 0F or -10F. At that point you can’t feel your core.
Making a complete 180 now… The school system. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has a terrible reputation. It is broke – as is the city, and yes, many of the schools are dreadful. The poorer neighborhoods have the biggest issues, as often happens. There were several school closing a few years ago. They merged students from two schools into one. This happened all over the city. What it meant was, that kids from rival gangs were now in school together. Safety routes were created, with guardian being posted along the path for the students safety. It hardly bares thinking about. We have been very happy with our elementary school. It goes from Kindergarten through 8th grade (that’s senior infants to 2nd year for the Irish folks in the audience). The principal is great, as is the assistant principal. We’ve been very happy with the teachers, and the staff, kids, and parents all have a sense of pride in the school. My oldest is in sixth grade, my second in fourth, and my youngest in Kindergarten. We have a combined total of thirteen years in the school, and we’re still going strong. The High School I’m not so sure about. It’s called Carl Schulz High School. It is making leaps and bounds, but I believe there is a slight gang issues – nothing major where kids are dueling it out, but it has a huge catchment area, with people from many different backgrounds attending. Diversity is important to me, and we’re not going anywhere, so the kids will attend. The school building is very impressive. It’s over 100 years old. Back in the day, the area was very industrial. The men worked in three eight-hour shifts. To fit in with that, the school had three shifts also, and was open 24 hours a day. There were 10,000 students attending a one time, just over 3,000 per shift. Those are crazy numbers. It was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1979.
In summation your Honor, Chicago really does rock. In many ways. It also has a shit ton of problems. I am glad I live here though. For me the good outweighs the bad. Maybe that’s because I am a white woman living in a relatively safe part of the city. Until recently I had a steady job with great insurance. A lot of people are not that lucky. Who knows if I will have to join their ranks or not. The thought petrifies me. I would love to be able to move to Canada 🇨🇦 if that happened, but they have the Queen on their money so I can’t. Just kidding. Not about the queen on the money, about it not being a big enough reason for me not to move! I would not be accepted due to my shitty health. I guess I could become an illegal immigrant. I hear Canada’s cool with that kind of thing. There’s always Ireland, but I wouldn’t get health insurance there because of my pre-existing conditions. The public health system exists, but the quality of my treatment would plummet. I just realized I turned this whole summation into a health insurance issue. So all I have left to say… à la Bill and Ted…
San Dimas High School Football rocks!