1985, the year that I arrived in the US, was a banner year for Chicago. The Bears had won the Superbowl, Chicago Shuffle was soaring up the charts, and Mike Ditka—the blue collar man’s blue collar coach was the toast of the town when he wasn't fighting his defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Enoute to the US, I had met a man at Bangkok airport, a Chicago metallurgist, and we spoke about Debye-Scherrer cameras and his city. He had told me it was called the Windy City and I formed images in my mind of a large jetliner landing in Chicago with its wings buffeted by rousing gusts of wind.
As I stayed on in this country, I came to learn that Chicago was one of four cities in the US with a distinct personality. That it was one of two cities in the US where you did not need to own a car. That this was the place that became the commercial hub for the Blues in the early part of the 20th. Century. Over the years I learned about Al Capone, about Leonard Chess, I learned about the city’s history of corrupt politicians; I spent 3 years in the Midwest--within a day’s drive to Chicago--but it took me 27 more years to actually visit the city.
Entering a new city, particularly an American one where the obsession with streamlining makes every city look and feel like the next one, one often starts the trip not really noticing anything new, till a sudden defining characteristic unloads a hammer strike of cognition. For me it was the exit sign for Racine Boulevard on the the freeway, that brought to mind the address scrawled on the inside flap of a matchbook—1634 Racine—viewed by an assassin under a dim 1920s Chicago streetlamp, as he plotted the demise of one of the “Untouchables” in the movie by the same name.
We stroll around around Michigan Avenue as the wind flirts with us. It is late March and the weather still manages to land a few harsh, incisive licks like a boxer slipping in jabs at the end of a round. Heavy stone holds the soul of this city’s downtown. Enormous stone and concrete buildings dominate, spaced by wide pavements and streets. Not quite Tokyo in sheer size, it is however more massive than New York. The wide boulevards lined with upscale stores are periodically short circuited by narrow alleyways with dim lights and raw brickwork reminiscent of an earlier time. The next day we would see similar heavy set stone work in the gothic architecture of the University of Chicago. Those buildings, which probably looked like ponderous caricatures of European universities when they were built in the 1890s, look distinguished today with vines crisscrossing the exterior walls of buildings.
Chicago is more down to earth than Manhattan, and folks seem better dressed, in an intellectual way, compared to Manhattan. There is also a slightly older sense of style—I saw several men in suit, cravat, and a hat, of the kind you would see in American photographs from the earlier twentieth century. It is a more homogeneous and less cosmopolitan population compared to New York or Los Angeles.
We took a long ride north along Lake Shore Drive, a road that curves along Lake Michigan, with green spaces and bike paths inbetween the road and the lake. Chicago has the midwest’s defining characteristic—a mind boggling flatness, and this flatness just runs straight into the Lake. A tinted haziness prevented us from looking far out, but the scenery looked dismal and forlorn going out to the water. Large, 70s style buildings in dull concrete and glass line the sea sized Lake Michigan, and everywhere in March there is a post winter tentativeness in the air as joggers experiment with varied apparel in response to the changing weather. Driving out about 20 minutes, the downtown lapses into suburbia full of high rise apartment buildings that looked about 3-4 decades old, with orderly bus stops and convenience stores, not unlike the residential suburbs of Seoul or Tokyo.
I visit my college friend P, who moved to Chicago from Delhi in 2000 and, improbably, plays as a blues guitarist in Chicago’s bars. He takes me to his basement and we handle some of his “investments”--expensive guitars arrayed on the floor in pricey felt lined cases amidst a maze of cables and amplifiers. The intervening years and the city have been kind to his musical skills--he sounds much improved from yesteryear. Like the mythical Delhi restaurateur who opened a pizza shop in Rome, my friend has the cojones, as well as the talent to play as a serious amateur blues guitarist in Chicago. But then this is the age of the transplanted specialist—M this evening is cooking a Bengali specialty, Murgi Posto (chicken with poppy seeds), after getting culinary advise from a Bengali speaking Sardarji chef on Youtube. Check it out, it is a nice dish (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgJZhMtZb7I).