Think you’re a Chicagoan? Post your qualifications below, and my wife will tell you if you are.
As a kid, I believed that lake Point Tower was sinking into Lake Michigan. Whenever we passed the building, lurking alone by the water like a black-tinted Godzilla, my father told me so. “In a few years, the bottom floors will be underwater,” he said, and every year we visited the city, Lake Point Tower looked a little shorter. I imagined a lower-floor resident banging on his windows for help from various lake creatures, and I thought: I want to be that guy. To my adolescent eyes, Chicago was a majestically weird place, one where residents blamed cows and goats for civic misfortunes, so bizarre phenomena like sinking skyscrapers seemed reasonable. And awesome. Someday, I vowed, I would be a Chicagoan.
My wife says I will never be one. “You could live in Lake Point Tower the rest of your life and get Mayor Daley’s face tattooed on your butt,” says Sarah, a Hyde Park native. “And it wouldn’t matter, because you didn’t grow up here.” This draconian standard excludes vast numbers of us, including Chicago’s five biggest celebrities—Capone, Jordan, Obama, Ditka, and Winfrey—all of whom moved here in their twenties. Per Sarah, none of the above will ever “understand” the city in the way that, say, Mike Royko (or even R. Kelly) could. “Michael Jordan became who he is as a basketball player here,” she says. “But not as a person. Chicago is not in his soul.”
This can’t be right. In my innocence, I assumed I would become a Chicagoan simply by moving here. Of course, the complicated answer is somewhere in between, an existential conundrum that only deepened when I began to ask everyone I knew: Am I a Chicagoan? They usually responded with a question of their own, which, if answered correctly, granted me entry. Like:
» “How long have you lived here?” Twelve years. “After ten, you’re grandfathered in. Unless you’re from Wisconsin—then it’s 15.”
» “What do the four stars on the Chicago flag represent?” The fire, Fort Dearborn . . . uh . . . deep-dish pizza . . . “Stop. Just stop. Please.”
» “Have you shifted your sports allegiance to Chicago teams?” Long ago. “Do you expect your teams to fail?” Always. “You qualify.”
» “Have you ever been lost in another city and said, ‘You know, this doesn’t happen in Chicago because our streets have the grid system’?” Yes. I’m really irritating about it. “You’re totally a Chicagoan.”
» “Have you voted?” Yes. “How many times?” You mean in the last election, or altogether? “Well played. That is correct.”
» “If you give a tourist directions, how accurate are they?” Once, I told a woman outside Water Tower Place that the Field Museum was only “two or three” blocks away. “I cannot in good conscience call you a Chicagoan.”
» “How do you feel about the kids banging on buckets with sticks on Michigan Avenue?” May they spend eternity eviscerated by leprosy-oozing horned demons. “You’re a Chicagoan.”
» “Do you consider Chicago, its teams, its people, and everything about the city an underdog?” No. “Are you hyperalert to perceived slights against Chicago?” No. “Then you’re not part of the city. You’re just in the city.”
So all this invites the question: What the hell am I? Born in Texas, raised in Kansas, educated in Colorado, with parents residing in Albuquerque and family spread from Seattle to Palm Beach, I no longer know where to call home. If I’m not a Chicagoan, then I’m nothing. “You’re nothing,” my wife said, patting my hand. “But don’t feel bad. So are, like, 90 percent of the people here. Besides, we can’t afford to live in Lake Point Tower anyway.”
illustration: hanna melin/agoodson.com