01.02
Murder city

Chicago, like most American cities, is a matrix. The sense of order in the way the streets are laid out, their utter predictably, makes you fear for the sanity of American town planners. What kind of satisfaction could possibly be derived from a job that only works in straight lines? The excitement, I suppose, must come from the intersections. Chicago has a lot of intersections, which means it also has a lot of Stop signs.

Our road, North Lakewood Avenue (neither a lake nor a wood in sight) doesn’t just have Stop signs, it has Railway Crossing signs.

The danger of letting the wife (particularly a wife with other things on her mind) choose a house is the risk of ending up, as we have, living on a railway line. Not just near a railway line. On a railway line. Walk out the front door and you trip over the tracks. Blood on the tracks.

“What’s that?” I said.

“What’s what dear?”

“That bloody great big track outside our front door?”

“Oh that”, Ros briefly glanced up from her Blackberry, “That’s nothing, it’s a railroad.”

“But I drive a Volkswagen Beetle, not the Flying fucking Scotsman”

“Yes dear, you can just park it at the side. Please don’t make a fuss”. Ros returned to her game of Space Invaders, or whatever it is she’s always playing on her Blackberry.

Train passing by our front door

Train passing by our front door

Our street, or should I say our railroad, certainly has a gritty urban feel to it that’s a long way from the manicured lawns of Darien. Taking the dog for a walk (to Starbucks) involves picking a route through broken glass, unclaimed canine excrement, leaflets promoting Polish cleaners (this being the largest settlement of Poles outside Warsaw), crushed polystyrene Dunkin’ Donuts cups and shattered CD cases. And that’s all within the shadow of our house. At one end of our railway line there’s an American Legion drinking club that reminds me of Warrington. An imposing confectionary factory that receives weekly deliveries of syrup in a black trailer (big enough to make our house shake when it trundles down the line every Thursday) looms large at the other end of our block.

The neighbours have taken flight, leaving a deserted house, too derelict even for the many homeless people who pilfer their way through the countless trashcans that populate our urban landscape. For someone of no fixed abode to pass on a squatting opportunity, choosing instead to stick it out on the streets in temperatures that have been known to sink as low as -27 degrees, tells you something about the quality of this particular housing stock. Maybe it did once have squatters, but if so, they evacuated upon hearing that an English family was moving in next door. It’s due to be knocked down by a demolition crew any day now. Further ravaging our outlook.

This, of course, is the posh part of town, where you’ll only get small change from three or four million dollars for your town house. Urban posh though, slightly different from Darien posh.

Chicago was the Murder Capital of the US 2003. I’m not sure what trophy they got, but given the American predilection for winning and coming top of the table, any table, I know that part of them (the part that hadn’t been shot away) will have been disappointed to have lost their title the following year. Perhaps that’s why they turned they attention to pastures new and waddled off with the Fattest City in the States 2005 award.

There’s no doubt these two achievements are linked. According to The New Scientist, it takes 60 cm of body fat on the waist to provide natural bullet-proofing. This surely then is a classic case of evolution in action (unfashionable though Darwinism is in this Creationist neck of the woods). Confronted with a reasonably high probability of being shot, the body adapts by adding 60 cm of bullet-proofing to the average Chicago waistline. It works. Murders fall by 24% and the City picks up a new award.

I have to say I love it here in this den of oversized assassins. I know that I love it because two of my teeth spontaneously disintegrated with a week of arriving here. What better metaphor for our changed circumstances than the collapse of my brilliant pearly white Connecticut housewife smile? A grizzly, and frankly quite scary, wizened appearance of a toothless old man has taken its place. My son referred to me as “bald and butt-ugly” the other day, which could be argued to be a tad disrespectful were it not so true. It’s the start of my urban look.

A mouthful of enamel and amalgam fragments was probably the only thing that could have persuaded me to return to the dentist less than two years after my last visit. (Actually it was the exposed nerve that swung it). What I hadn’t been expecting when I walked into ‘Always There Dental Care’ was a full-on theatrical experience. The place is brilliantly branded with a logo that looks as if it has just walked off the set of ‘The Incredibles’ etched large in every window. It’s open plan if you can imagine such a thing for dental surgery. The idea seems to be that the patient is the lead character in a carefully choreographed theatrical production. It brought to mind Bob Fosse’s ‘All That Jazz’, a heavily stylised musical about guy dying of a heart attack (a lot of fun, that movie). The soundtrack to this real life dental experience was all my favourite rock tracks – it occurred to me, as my teeth were being picked over to Pink Floyd, that ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ might never sound quite the same again. The star of the whole show was the dentist himself. Dressed all in black, hugely trendy, said he loved music and could easily have passed for the lead singer of The Flaming Lips. He conducted (the only word that properly describes his approach) my appointment, ably assisted by three stunning dental assistants. He told me it was his mission in life to expunge my fear of dentists and re-programme me so that I would eagerly return to his surgery with a bounce in my step.

At the end of my time one of the assistants seductively handed me her card. “Call me if you need anything”, she purred, “Anything at all, do call”. At times like this I find it disarmingly easy to forget that I’m a middle-aged man with an expanding waistline. And that I’m married. I slowly processed what she had said, savouring various possibilities in my imagination, before concluding that someone whose business is in oral hygiene probably didn’t really mean ‘anything at all’. But even so, the way she said it. It was a tone I hadn’t heard for some time. I began to see how the man in black could make good his promise. I readily booked up for a series of future appointments and, as I did, I begun to understand their brand name for I realised I would always be there.

It’s sharp and fast, Chicago. Nothing brought this home more than a recent trip to IKEA. Google estimated it to be a twenty minute journey and so I was somewhat surprised when it took us just short of an hour to get back, particularly as the traffic had been quite light. I then noticed that the directions gave it as a thirty-mile drive, right beside the twenty-minute estimate. To cover thirty miles in twenty minutes requires an average speed of ninety miles an hour. Now I don’t know what you make of this, but I’m inclined to think that the suggestion of keeping up an average speed of ninety miles an hour through a residential area peppered with stop signs is bordering on the irresponsible.

Maybe I simply haven’t yet fully adjusted to the new pace of life in the fast lane of the City.

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