Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked for the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Tribune, and Chicago City Colleges. I’ve drunk Prosecco in her overpriced restaurants and G&Ts in her jazz clubs. Chicago is the standard by which I compare other cities when I travel. When I write my little stories, Chicago appears as one of the characters. A while back, I was asked to write a short essay about using place as character and to differentiate that technique from setting. “Wha?” I said. Even now, typing that last sentence made my head hurt. Instead, I wrote the following:
I got up early for a run along the lake, but the alewives had washed up along the shore, and the air smelled like dead fish, so I headed back home. That’s all right. Ellen and I were going to the Art Institute to load up on culture, and I hadn’t shaved or showered yet. By the time I got back, she had coffee made—the thick black stuff that’s her specialty. I tossed it down while I dressed.
Parking in the Loop costs about as much as a kidney transplant these days so we parked near Wrigley Field and took the EL downtown. Michigan Avenue was bustling. It was the start of tourist season and a few panhandlers were working the crowd. I recognized one of the guys selling papers near a group of bucket drummers and slipped him a fin before we hurried past the stone lions and up the museum’s steps. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the world’s best art museums. No matter how many times I visit, I’m always blown away by the beauty and variety of the collection. We haunted the impressionist galleries, wandered through the modern wing, then stood for a bit in front of one of my favorites—“Two Sisters” by Joaquin Sorolla. What that guy could do with light.
On our way back to the El, we walked past Daley Plaza, which, in the words of Blues Brother Jake, is “where they got that Picasso.” The EL clickety-clacked us north, past Lincoln Park, back to our car. I must have missed the street cleaning sign when I parked because the windshield was wallpapered with tickets. I crammed them into the glove compartment and drove us up to Devon Avenue for some aloo gobi and spicy fish curry. That’s the thing about Chicago; with all her ethnic neighborhoods you can get any kind of food you want. The popular myth is that hot dogs and deep-dish pizza are our signature foods. Bullshit. Chicago has everything from fancy French to tasty tapas to south side soul food. It’s a city rich in diversity of people and culture.
I suppose we should have gone home after our feast, but we were in the mood for some blues, so we headed south to Svengoolie’s adopted hometown, Berwyn. There’s a little blockhouse tavern on Harlem Avenue that serves up cheap beer and smokin’ hot blues bands. We pushed our way past the regulars and grabbed the last two seats at the bar. The guy on the stool next to mine kept falling asleep on my shoulder, and someone behind me was bumping my elbow, but I didn’t care. Toronzo Canon was on stage, making his guitar wail like he’d made a pact with the devil. No human should be able to play that fast and clean.
After the second set, we figured it was time to pack it in. We both had to work in the morning. Ellen would be clocking in at the crime lab to analyze gunshot residue kits from the weekend’s gang shootings. I’d be facing a room full of tired city college students, each one hoping to land a career that pays better than the crappy fast food joints and retail shops they currently work in.
Ellen likes to call Chicago the Paris of the Midwest. The native Algonquian speakers called it the place of the wild onions. The white-picket-fence crowd out in the suburbs think of it as a crime ridden cesspool to be braved once a year when the shop windows are decked out for Christmas, but Chicago is my Calliope. She was an inspiration for my first novel and is as important to the story as any of the human characters. Sure, she’s got plenty of problems—violent crime, poverty, and a long history of corrupt politicians—but hey, what better muse for a mystery writer?