Once upon a time, a young woman and her boyfriend attended a crowded Saturday early showing of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at the Music Box. When the lights dimmed, the boyfriend’s face appeared on the screen, giving the real-life boyfriend a pep talk about proposing marriage. The woman was floored. Then, emboldened by his recorded self, the boyfriend stood up next to her and did it in person, ring and all. She said yes, the crowd went nuts, and they all lived happily ever after.
This lovely story seems to contradict the curious perception that Chicagoans are not a particularly romantic people, a stereotype fed over the years by hard-nosed writers like Royko and Algren, no-nonsense athletes like Butkus and Ditka, and my in-laws who always forgot their anniversary. Frankly, the idea that the entire population of a city could be unromantic has long struck me as preposterous, insulting, and, after conducting a recent informal survey, 100 percent true. “Chicagoans are mostly working-class folks. We don’t mess around with frivolous crap like romance,” one respondent grumbled. The words “tough” and “pragmatic” came up repeatedly; one killjoy simply said we’re “too tired and too cold” for romance. (OK, that was my wife, last night.)
What do ordinary Chicagoans find romantic? Couldn’t say. But on the eve of Valentine’s Day, I found out what we consider unromantic.
Poetry. Regardless of age, gender, or sexual orientation, the idea of reading verse aloud was met with universal repulsion. Replies ranged from “invasive” to “onanistic” to “makes me feel stupid” to “dorksville.” “Poetry is anti-romantic,” said one respondent. “You write me poetry, and I’m dumping you.”
Flowers. “If I have to, I buy my flowers at Costco,” said the representative male. “You get the most and they’re the cheapest.” A representative female: “If it’s a symbol of love, your love for me is going to die in a week. Thanks.” An alarming number of respondents associated flowers with Mayor Daley, a.k.a. the Least Romantic Person on Earth. (“He has ruined flowers, airports, and wrought iron for everyone.”)
Restaurants. “Restaurants are not romantic, and if they try to be, then they’re just icky,” said one respondent. Case in point: Geja’s Café, Lincoln Park’s fusty pre-prom fondue lair. (“How on earth is eating from a vat of melted cheese, followed by a vat of oil, followed by a vat of chocolate, in any way romantic? Unless your idea of sexy is bloating and flatulence.”)
Snowstorms. Rather than cozy scenes of canoodling before a crackling fireplace, snowstorms conjured up images of snowplows, parking headaches, and a slow commute. “Snowstorms can be romantic, but not the slushy rain-snow,” one respondent explained. “And that’s what we’ve got.”
Views. Considering the number of respondents slamming the Signature Room on the John Hancock Center’s 95th floor, it’s safe to say Chicagoans are not seduced by sweeping vistas and twinkly lights. “What’s romantic about a view?” summed up a respondent. “I didn’t make the scene beautiful for her.”
Sunsets and ice-skating also got disparaged, and candles were rebuffed as too dangerous. One married couple declared that nothing could be called intrinsically romantic, at which point I got so depressed, there was only one thing left to do.
“Chicago is a fast-paced, hard-working town,” said Mrs. Music Box Proposal, now 47 and living with Mr. Music Box Proposal and their child in Andersonville. “That leaves little time for appreciating the finer things in life—or even in each other.” Huh. When I mentioned the magical proposal, Mr. Music Box said he wasn’t the same romantic spirit he had been, then mumbled something about being late for a bachelor party in Joliet. With that, my survey ended. Because if anything embodies the opposite of romance better than a bachelor party in Joliet, humans haven’t discovered it yet.
Illustration: Matt Vincent/agoodson.com