Irregular people

When we first moved to Chicago we had a slightly strange arrangement where we had to order any Pay-For-View TV programmes through our landlady. She had persuaded the cable company to maintain a single contract in her name for two different residences. It was only when I had to track her down at 6.30am one Saturday, and impress upon her that Chelsea against West Bromwich Albion was indeed just cause for waking her up at such an hour, that we realised this arrangement wasn’t going to work for either of us. Fortunate really that Ros and I don’t watch pornography.

“Hi, it’s Simon.”

“Simon who?”

“Your tenant, Simon. The one with the English accent.”

“My God, what’s that matter? Has there been a fire?”

“No nothing’s the matter, don’t worry, the house is fine. No fire.”

“Then why are you calling now? It’s one thirty in the morning.”

“Yeah I’m sorry. I was wondering if you could order ‘Big Bertha and Her Bouncing Bosoms’ for us. It’s on the Adult channel in ten minutes.”

Funnily enough, I think she might have understood that more than Chelsea against West Bromwich Albion. She asked whether a soccer match could really be that important. I told her it could.

But it’s not all soccer (football). In Connecticut I used to spend my time watching desperate housewives; here I’m addicted to the Sopranos. I saw all sixty-five episodes of the first five series during my first few months in Chicago. Although set in New Jersey, the Sopranos is really a Chicago kind of film. Tony Soprano is a modern-day Al Capone. As much as the Illinois Board of Tourism want to deny his very existence (“Al Capone? Never heard of him, but do come and see our beautiful gardens” is pretty much their stance on promoting the City), Capone symbolises Chicago. A native New Yorker, he was only here for twelve years before taking up residence on a small, secluded island off San Francisco called Alcatraz. But what twelve years. He reputedly earned $100m a year. In the 1920’s. Al Capone’s example shows Chicago to be the city of opportunity in the land of opportunity. Certainly it is for those with an eye for the half chance and no compunction about blowing away the competition. He was undone in the end by the Inland Revenue. Like Ros, he had a bit of a block about tax returns.

They’re not alone. While an equivalent feature in Wandsworth’s SouthWest magazine might review local child care facilities or offer advice on ‘how to love your Begonias’, Chicago’s glossy magazine recently did a piece on what local government officials who have served time in jail are doing now. The subtitle read, ‘Over the years many of our local public officials have capped off their careers with a stint in the pokey. Here’s how a few of them are faring today as ex-cons’. With tales of tax fraud and evasion, extortion, theft, forgery, official misconduct, bribery and mail fraud, it went on for pages and pages. Clearly incarceration is a natural career progression of the ambitious bureaucrat. Earlier this month the last Governor of Illinois, the top banana in the State, was sentenced to six years for racketeering and bribery. He’s the third Governor of Illinois in recent history to end up behind bars.

According to Saul Bellow, ‘the moral law is never thicker, in Chicago, than onion skin or tissue paper’. Saul Bellow is a man who lived here for sixty-nine years, went through four divorces, wrote the brilliant ‘Herzog’ and fathered his last child at the grand old age of eighty-four. Clearly a man who knew what he was talking about, he also said that Chicago is a place that “loves irregular people”.

Right from the very beginning there was something a little off-kilter about Chicago. Its name comes from the Potwatami Indian word for the smelly wild onions that grew along the river. It was built on reclaimed, and supposedly uninhabitable, land to become the hub of industrial America. Positioned initially at the junction of the American waterways, then the railroads (and now air traffic), Chicago was right at the heart of things. At the turn of the last century it was a muscular town, as immortalised in Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem, Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders

All of which makes it more than a little ironic that, today, it has become the first American City to ban Foie Gras. The very same streets that used to echo to the squeals of slit throats and fill with the blood of freshly slaughtered steers, has suddenly gone soft on geese.

Los Angeles, pretender for Chicago’s Second City crown, loved it. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, under the headline ‘Windy City Gone Wimpy’ that Chicago is now a ‘Sissy town’. It’s not just the geese that they have decided to save that so delighted the Los Angeles Times, but the fact that Chicago appears to have undergone a full frontal lobotomy.

The home of the blues with its atmospheric smoke-filled bars, Chicago has gone and banned smoking in public places. The birthplace of artery-clogging deep-dish pizza, Chicago is planning to ban trans fatty acid from fast food chains. And the town where, not so long ago, the streets were so full of mud that horses sometimes drowned in them, has now cleaned up to such an extent that it wants its taxi drivers to wear crisp white shirts with matching socks.

It’s as if Ernest Hemingway, one of Chicago’s favourite son’s, had forsaken big game hunting and bull-fighting and set up a poodle parlour in the suburbs.

Mind you, Los Angeles can’t really talk, having this week ruled that it’s cruel to paint elephants. They’ve banned the painting of pink floral patterns on live elephants. As far as I’m aware no such ruling exists here in Chicago. This, after all, is a city famous for dyeing the Chicago River a vivid green every St Patrick’s Day. The very same river, incidentally, whose flow Chicago reversed in 1900 so that all its sewage shouldn’t pollute precious Lake Michigan, but drain instead into St Louis.

Reassuringly, in light of this sudden spate of political correctness, a lead feature in today’s Chicago magazine tells the story of a local pimp dentist. I can’t imagine too many other places in the world where a successful and respected downtown dentist would, as an extracurricular activity, run a thriving prostitution ring. He was motivated, apparently, by a desire to improve his credit rating. (When we first moved to the States with no credit track record we were advised to apply for a store card as a way of establishing a rating. I have to say pimping never occurred to me as an alternative. It’s these basics that you just don’t know when you move to a new country). The detail about this pimp dentist, though, that confirms him to be a true Chicago man is that he has a wife called Mona Lisa. (I wonder what kind of smile she has now).

Irregularity, it seems, is not yet dead in Chicago.

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