Letter from Chicago

by Thomas Conner


It’s hell in Chicago when the wind sings a tune,
But the worst thing in town is this Chicago Tribune.

The Windy City nickname, you’ve probably heard by now, has nothing to do with that end-of-the-world gale screaming off the lake tonight. God-a-mighty, make no mistake, it’s a bear. These winter storms blow through, then that backdraft comes screaming north-to-south over that now-liquid glacier, and the frigid gusts breeching Lake Shore Drive become absolutely armor-piercing, slicing through pea coats and cable-knits and longjohns and whatever other layers your hubris suggested. I grew up inhaling the wind that comes sweeping down the plain, but not once did it freeze the hairs inside my nose. Chicago’s wind is a painful reality, but the Windy City moniker refers to the bluster of our politicians. That, of course, also remains a troublesome reality.

Woody Guthrie blew through here a few times. I like knowing his footprints are nearby, and, given the breadth of his hard travelin’, I’m almost always satisfied. I lived in New York a while back and spent a year squinting at his scribbles in the Woody Guthrie Archives. Give me Chicago over New York any day. Both big cities have skyscrapers and rattling trains, but Chicago is a thousand times more livable, its architecture more striking and the windows on our trains actually fulfill their purpose. Woody didn’t agree. “Chicago is small potaters compared to New York,” he wrote his second wife in a letter dated Sept. 23, 1944. “We’ve already walked it over and under a couple of times. Found a few good used records…These elevated trains and trolleys are so noisy you can’t hear yourself think. I wish they’d take them all down and dig some good subways.” The next day, he wrote of his awe inside the Art Institute. “I always feel like a painter when I come out of a gallery,” he said. “When I’m inside one, I feel like a sniffing dog.” Woody really wanted to be an artist. He once sold his box of brushes and paints to get a bite to eat, but he kept the guitar. If he hadn’t, he might not have written couplets like the one above.

I love those lines, and not just because I’m up here writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. They’re from a song he penned sometime in the mid-’40s called “Chicago, Chicago.” I smile imagining Woody quivering in the wind on a street corner in the Loop but still steering his lyrical comment on the weather into some more swipes at the right. Even writing in another letter to Moe Asch, he said, “They call it windy here, the Windy City, and the Republicans want to keep it that way.” He ends his Republican-baiting song:

Chicago’s my home and I love her, God knows
I’ll follow her wild wind wherever she blows
She’s a solid rock town, and solid steel, too
She’ll be solid union before I get through.

In a way, I guess I’m here because he and many others succeeded. Chicago’s a union town, all right, as blue as it gets and largely Walmart-free. The Sun-Times is a guild paper, and my partner and I recently cheered Illinois’ vote to establish civil unions. Oklahoma, since we left six years ago, seems to have just gotten redder and weirder. (It was not fun, mind you, answering for that Sharia law proposition once that eked into the news up here.) So we were asking ourselves the other night: Are we Chicagoans now?

I still feel every inch an Okie. Woody did, too. He left Oklahoma when he was barely 17 and hardly returned, yet the world knows him as nothing if not an Okie. I left at the same age and went back. I left again at 22 and went back. I headed to New York, to study Woody, at 29 and returned several weeks before both my 31st birthday and 9/11. We’ve been in Chicago long enough to know how to prepare the house for winter. My drawl is still intact; it reasserts itself when I’m on the phone to Pryor. I still wear a fine, felt cowboy hat, which I try to explain to these people is the only logical choice for Chicago winters. They all wear stocking caps and get faces full of flakes. (The Cubs fans have the brims of their ball caps, of course, but they’re deserving of a wholly unique brand of pity.) When I need some musical comfort food, I drown out the “noisey” trains with a playlist called “Oklahoma.” James Talley, J.J. Cale, Jared Tyler, good ol’ Bob Childers. “Back to Oklahoma,” “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” “Land-Locked Blues,” “The Good Earth.” Always the Call’s “Oklahoma.” Y’all really blew that official state rock song vote, by the way.

I have operated under the assumption that I’d be back in Oklahoma again one day, taking care of aging parents. But Dad died a couple of years ago, and Mom moved out of state. I no longer have any blood ties to the red dirt. This was a profoundly unsettling realization last summer. So if I return, it’ll be by choice, not duty. That would make it all the more satisfying. We’ll have to go on a Woody-like offensive against that right wing, though, to make another return trip worthwhile. Then again, I may not have any choice in the matter. The way the wind is whistling in the flue tonight, this whole place may be whisked away and land, Dorothy-style, somewhere between Glencoe and Sand Springs.

Thomas Conner was raised in Oklahoma and is now based in Chicago, Illinois.