By Chris Erskine
Los Angeles Times
We are creeping along the Chicago expressway when I decide it is time to merge into the right lane. For some reason, none of the other drivers is letting me in. I do all the things I usually do when I merge. The blinker is bleating – hiccup, hiccup – and Posh is hanging out the passenger window to her waist, licking her lips and smiling demurely. In L.A., this works 10 out of 10 times.
In Chicago, the drivers choose to stare straight ahead and not allow the merge. It’s an odd disconnect. In person, these are the nicest folks ever, chatty and helpful. Behind the wheel, they have almost no peripheral vision and seem to drive ferociously, as if in labour.
Maybe it’s the 51-week winters. Or the Cubs. Or both.
Other than that, we had a very enjoyable stay here in the City of No Mergings. The spring has been late in arriving and the landscaping seems dormant, probably dead. On one particularly raw day, the women all seemed to have the sad expressions of fishmongers’ wives. Later, when it warms up, they seem to brighten, to come out of their pale husks.
Gawd, we got around during our college tour. One day we are in Ohio, the next in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, slurping up the best gumbo I’ve had outside a swamp.
They sure eat well here, as if every meal might be their last. Chicagoans wear red meat like a second sweater. I certainly envy this. Just before we left, I had a sandwich that used every part of the cow, including the bell.
Hence, many of the men are buxom here, in ways you don’t see so much out on the Left Coast. Then come July, they’ll sit in the bleachers at Wrigley, remove their shirts and steam off this excess baggage in about a minute.
No doctor would ever recommend this sort of weight loss regimen. But in Chicago, it just seems to work.
It’s 4pm, and I’m sitting in a north side “think tank,” nursing a beer and breathing deep the stale tavern air.
“We’re out of a lot of things,” the waitress is explaining. “Scallops, green beans, calamari … ”
The bar is one of those typical Chicago taverns, with about 700 coats of varnish and a men’s room door that slams like a gunshot. Along the front, windows swing open to the sidewalk, should the temperature ever break 50.
I appreciate a good saloon. After a couple of beers, I find clarity, and sonnets I learned in college begin to come back to me. I begin to recall phone numbers of creditors and girlfriends from the eighth grade. I can again name the starting lineup of the ’69 Cubs. Kessinger, Beckert, Williams. …
Fortunately, I am alone in this saloon for an hour, which is a strange experience for a dad. Mostly, I am not alone. I usually have kids clinging to my shoulders and rifling my pockets for cash. They start by checking for a pulse. When they don’t find one, they go straight for my wallet or car keys.
So it’s nice just to have some “me time,” while the little girl samples a college class and Posh and the little guy check out the local zoo.
“Several of the animals shared your body language,” Posh tells me later.
“Bears,” she says.
“And they smelled,” honks the little guy, holding his nose.
Yeah, well, some zoos do a better job than others. At our little zoo back in California, the one I pay the mortgage on, we pride ourselves on cleanliness – it’s almost obsessive. We hose down the kids at least once a week, and the 300-pound beagle, the zoo’s centrepiece, gets a mineral water bath almost monthly.
It’s a little ridiculous, this attention we pay to zoo hygiene, but it pays off in the long run.
And what could be better preparation for college life?
Midway through my second beer, the cellphone burps.
“Where are you?” Posh asks.
“Who is this?”
Time to move on. In fact, it’s almost time to head back to Los Angeles, where the bars are generally too clean and the women all look like breadsticks.
We’ve had a nice stay in Chicago though; we always do. Grandma seems half her age and the cousins – there are six – tumble in the yard with the little guy till he is breathless with glee.
The next day, we hop a freight train out of O’Hare – a full flight, as always.
You can tell the Californians right away, by their flip-flops and their tattoos. A certain portion appear to be fleeing prosecution. Others, like us, are going West for the sunshine and the chance to meet a movie star.
California … America’s Australia.
Honestly, it’s good to be home.
Erskine can be reached at chris.Erskine@latimes.com.