Friday, January 4, 2013

"You Were Never In Chicago:" Neil Steinberg's Soul Of the City

With the exception of my year and a half in Seattle, I've lived in Chicago my entire life. The city still fascinates me, yet there are some aspects of the collective city mentality that I find embarrassing: the fixation on the 1985 Bears, and the still prevalent use of the players on that team for local advertising purposes; local politicians promoting Chicago as a "world class city," as if the area was a small town looking to make good, rather than the third largest city in America; and, an act that nearly caused me to boycott the Chicago Sun-Times, terribly written opinion pieces by Jim Belushi. However, the Sun-Times is the home of Neil Steinberg, who has long been my favorite local columnist. From sports to opinion pieces, the majority of Chicago newspaper writers tend to write the same pieces over and over, looking for the quick riling up of certain emotions. Steinberg, however, at least tries to foster intelligent conversations. Late last year, the University of Chicago Press published his latest book You Were Never In Chicago, and I made it the final book I read in 2012. While vastly different in tone, prose, and era, the work made an excellent bookend to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City On the Make, since both titles are ultimately concerned with highlighting philosophy and sociology, rather than being straightforward "history" books.

But there is a wealth of history here. Steinberg compiles a variety of stories and hypotheses, from his own life, the formation of Chicago as a city and as an identity, his newspaper work, occasional mentions of local politics, and, as he tends to focus his columns on, the often unknown side of Chicago's citizens and (sometimes long gone) businesses and places. Sometimes these aspects are combined. You Were Never In Chicago opens with a chapter on Steinberg's move from the Lakeview neighborhood to the suburbs, along with a wonderful story about a trip to a hardware store during Chicago's Gay Pride Parade. This passage is just a small part of a longer, more complex rumination on political figures and the disconnect between city and suburban life. Steinberg moves seamlessly between the seemingly different elements to create a fascinating, intangible look at a slice of Chicago.

"Music whumps from passing floats. Honorees in convertibles roll slowly by, beaming and waving. The year before, I took our older son Ross, then three, to the parade, by accident. I was heading to the hardware store to buy a plunger and brought him along for company, forgetting that a quarter million people had gathered at the end of our block.

Undeterred--and not realizing that the hardware store would be closed for the parade--I swept him up in my arms and we pushed forward, joining the onlookers. Ross gazed around at the mustachioed leather boys, the bodybuilders in tiny Speedo bathing suits, the harlequins on stilts, the flamboyant drag queens wobbling under giant feathered Mardi Gras headpieces, the bannered vintage convertibles with that year's crop of dignitaries perched atop back seats, where they could be better seen by the crowd. His eyes widened, he pointed a quivering finger and said, 'Daddy, those men...they're not wearing seatbelts! It isn't safe (Steinberg 2)!'"

The book's title comes from a postcard sent to The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling in 1952 after his three-part feature on Chicago (the origin of the phrase 'The Second City'). The postcard said nothing except "You were never in Chicago," a phrase that has multiple philosophical angles. Steinberg spends some time wondering what makes a Chicagoan; he himself grew up in Ohio before attending Northwestern University, and even after years of city living, he sometimes has his doubts. But in his examination of the Chicago identity, he doesn't go for the obvious examples. A curious example is one that I've never thought about--Ernest Hemingway was born in Oak Park, right outside Chicago, yet has never been linked or identified with the city. Steinberg explains why, and in the process adds another layer to the intangible notion of labeling someone as a Chicagoan. The passage below ends on Steinberg's most sentimental note, but it's genuine.

"'I never thought Chicago was a tough place,' Hemingway said in 1953--'tough' of course being the highest compliment Hemingway could conceive. Chicago, he said, wasn't even as tough as Kansas City.

Being a Chicagoan is a claim you have to press, a case you must make, and Hemingway, by not making it, lost the right. He had liked the place well enough as a young man in love, but having been born in Oak Park, Hemingway had no intention of lingering so close to home. 'Gee this is a terribly good town,' he wrote in a 1920 letter while living at 1230 N. State Street. 'Instead of hating it the way I used to, I'm getting terribly fond of it. However there isn't going to be any permanent settlege down in it...because there are so many more most excellent towns in different place that I'd like to be.'

Maybe that's the definition--you're a Chicagoan if, wherever you are at the moment, Chicago is the place you'd like to be. I would argue that Chicago is not simply a matter of where you put your pillow but where you place your heart, wherever you're sleeping now (Steinberg 40)."

Having been a reporter and columnist for years, Steinberg is obviously full of great stories, and some excellent ones are presented here. Pages are devoted to the now-defunct Division Street Russian Baths. His writing is very careful and precise, but in his best passages, there are elements of casual storytelling and seemingly fictional sketches of people and surroundings. These sections remind me of William Zinsser's thoughts on E.B. White in the book On Writing Well: the best, most casual form of narrative storytelling is actually extremely precise. What feels like a conversation is only possible when there's focus on strong writing.

"Take off your clothes, stash them in a locker, wrap yourself in the sheet, then pad downstairs, the key around your wrist. You enter a low-ceilinged basement room, the walls a mismatched hodgepodge of streaked, garish linoleum tiles and glazed yellow brick. There are two tables and two men--squat, hirsute, burly Mexicans in gym shorts and shower clogs--giving massages to the great pink hillsides of older gentlemen, face down. A half-hour massage is twelve dollars, plus tip. Averting your eyes, you step around the tables, unwrap, set aside the towels and the sheet--there are no hooks, nowhere to hang anything up, so place your towels carefully on the tile lip of the placid cold pool, by the door to the sauna--turn on showers that don't spray but pour, then step under the gushing spigot. The showers are not secluded by any kind of wall or partition, but out in the open in one corner of the room. Nobody else cares about that, and soon you don't, either.

Wrap yourself in your sheet, if you like. Leave one towel by the cold pool, saving it for later. Bunch the other one up, delivering a quick blot to your face so you can see, taking it with you as a pillow. Then pull the heavy glass door open and scoot dripping into the sauna itself, the superheated heart of the Russian Baths (Steinberg 102)."

His columns have literally taken him around and below Chicago. He writes about visiting factories, helping his younger brother through difficult times (and potentially incurring the wrath of citizens by helping his brother secure a job in the city), accompanying police on prostitution rounds, and the sweet story of meeting and dating his wife. But even at his most personal, Steinberg isn't being self-serving. This is slightly a memoir, but the experiences tie into the day-to-day living of Chicago, either directly or indirectly. He's traveled underneath the city with the Water Department, seeing a side that very few people have ever experienced. The descriptions are fascinating, and Steinberg projects a genuine enthusiasm for what he's experienced. Based on his career at the Sun-Times, newspaper work and office politics can make someone jaded very quickly. He recaps some of the tougher episodes in his line of work, and while he's experienced and projects the necessary toughness needed, there are moments of pure joy in his encounters. Even in strictly journalistic paragraphs, the reader can't help but be caught up in the wonder.

"Water mains, sewer pipes, telephone cables, service conduits, heavily shielded electrical lines, fiber optics, thermal cooling tubes. And those are just the main operative veins and arteries of the city--there are all kinds of defunct technologies down there too: pneumatic-tube message systems and wood-encased Western Union telegraph wires. To this day, crews from the Department of Water Management still occasionally dig up a water pipe made in the 1800s from a hollowed-out hemlock log. Many iron water mains are so old and decayed--relics from 1900--that only the earth around the pipes holds them together. Dig too close to some mains and pressure from the water within will burst them.

I toured the Jardine Water Purification Plant next to Navy Pier, nearly fifty years old and still the largest water treatment plant in the world, pumping out a billion gallons of water a day into Chicago. I visited each of the four water cribs perched on the horizon in Lake Michigan--intakes for the city's water system. For over a century men lived on the little castle-like round brick structures, caring for them. In winter, to keep the intakes clear of ice, the tender would lower a quarter stick of dynamite on a rod and blast them open (Steinberg 120-121)."

These cited passages might not seem like the obvious choices for examples, but they are such small, carefully written moments that appealed to me just as much as the bigger pictures. Steinberg never comes to any concrete conclusions about the city's makeup, but he culls together enough people, places, and events to paint one of the more accurate, touching looks at the city. Again, it's not the same as Nelson Algren's work (in a hilarious sentence about the gentrification of Division Street, which used to be one of Chicago's most dangerous, seedy areas, Steinberg says "Nelson Algren would vomit"). But taken together, readers can chart the development of the city's psyche. Again, I don't agree with everything about the city--I still feel like 'The Bean' in Millennium Park is too new to be classified as a city landmark, and Steinberg writes about it positively. You Were Never in Chicago was one of my favorite works in 2012, and I admire Steinberg's dedication and writing style. I was fascinated to see his work "Driving With Ed McElroy," a story about spending time with an old school publicist, in the book, since it was featured in Granta Magazine's 2009 issue dedicated to Chicago. While some readers might not expect a Chicago columnist to be a proper fit for a literary journal, Steinberg's themes and stories are, quite literally, written for everyone, combining narrative mastery and fascinating asides that balance between literary non-fiction and quick reads suited for spending a few minutes with a newspaper column. This balance is never pandering or insulting, and proves that excellent writing can and should be accessible to a wide variety of readers.

Work Cited:

Steinberg, Neil. You Were Never In Chicago. Copyright 2013 by Neil Steinberg.

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