Where the past is present

Los Angeles Times - - HOME & DESIGN - CHRIS ERSK­INE chris.ersk­ine@la­times.com Twit­ter: @er­sk­ine­times

CHICAGO — We are just off the plane when things start to get com­pli­cated. At the rental counter I’m dizzy as a two-headed calf, try­ing to solve the chronic rid­dle of whether we will re­turn our car with the tank empty or full, which in­volves a lot of in­stant cal­cu­lus re­gard­ing lo­cal gas prices.

Our clerk Ni­cole in­sists: “Full or empty, sir?”

Been a long day. I’ve been pantsed by the TSA, side-swiped by a drink cart and pulled my left schnitzel just try­ing to slip into the plane’s tiny loo. Over Iowa, I re­al­ized our con­nect­ing flight was some sort of crop-duster. Now they want me to an­swer AP math prob­lems.

“It’s only money, Ni­cole,” I say. “What do you sug­gest?”

Eventually we de­cide to go with the empty op­tion, and sud­denly we’re out­side pick­ing out a rental car, of which they never have the size you or­dered. They of­fer me a big­ger car, which I don’t want be­cause we’ll be zigzag­ging through con­gested parts of the city. We might also rob a few banks.

So I want in my rental car what I want in my life: a very tight turn­ing ra­dius.

Ni­cole talks me into a mega-Chrysler any­way, big as Chicago it­self. And the lit­tle guy and I are fi­nally out of there.

My youngest son and I are headed back to my home­town in the north­west sub­urbs — a vil­lage smoth­ered in sour cream yet still a prairie par­adise 50 years af­ter I roamed the back­yards bare­foot, snatch­ing ap­ples and other kids’ Sch­winns.

I’ve promised the lit­tle guy a week of fire­flies, messy con­ver­sa­tions and dis­tant train whis­tles in the night. He seems pretty ex­cited by that.

“The bass are re­ally bit­ing,” I add. So are the mos­qui­toes.

Mostly he wants to visit his cousins, who are celebri­ties to him. They are just past col­lege and full of mirth and knowl­edge.

From his cousins, he gets such life tips as, “No­body pays for drinks at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois. No­body.”

His cousins also ad­mit that, now out in the real world, they’re ex­per­i­ment­ing with speak­ing in dou­ble-neg­a­tives in busi­ness meet­ings, as in, “I’m not not un­op­posed to that,” which might ac­tu­ally be a triple neg­a­tive.

The lit­tle guy gets a kick out of ev­ery ras­cally thing his cousins do. The way they re­cline on the kitchen coun­ters, or poke fun at their mom. I think it’s their gen­eral pluck­i­ness he likes. Or that they seem to have life so fig­ured out. (In the cur­rent ver­nac­u­lar, they do not-not-not-not have life so fig­ured out.)

Mean­while, I am fall­ing back in love with my home­town. My Bed­ford Falls was es­tab­lished 150 years ago, amid lakes, creeks and prairie ponds. Back then, th­ese gen­tly rolling hills were graced by dairy farms and Dutch cheese mak­ers. Claim to fame: At one point, Hansel and Gre­tel bought a house.

The lakes and the prairie ponds are still around, but th­ese days they’re sur­rounded by mas­sive brick man­sion-cas­tles built by anes­the­si­ol­o­gists and dudes who made it very big selling pa­tio fur­ni­ture. Times change. So do home­towns. Still, I am charmed by the place — the way the an­cient brick out­side the Cat­low The­ater still chalks when you run your hand across it. Or how your wait­ress ac­tu­ally seems to care how you like your eggs.

It’s been five years since I’ve been back to the heart­land, so I’m rec­on­cil­ing my sto­ry­book mem­o­ries against what I ac­tu­ally see.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween L.A. and Chicago of­ten seems the dif­fer­ence be­tween Pink and Pink Floyd: glitz over sub­stance, crass com­mer­cial­ism over poetry.

But that’s far too sim­plis­tic. In truth, Chicago may have as many phonies as Los Angeles — though they never quan­tify that in any cen­sus.

Both cities seem to suffer from way too much money. One morn­ing I flirt with the thought of swim­ming across my home­town, the way Cheever did across sub­ur­ban Con­necti­cut, from pool to pool, an­nounc­ing my ar­rival with a splash, followed by a quick wave good­bye, be­fore mov­ing on to the next pool.

As Cheever noted, “Like any ex­plorer … the hos­pitable cus­toms and tra­di­tions of the na­tives would have to be han­dled with diplo­macy. …”

If I timed it right, I could ar­rive at the horsy part of town just in time for cock­tail hour (usu­ally 3 p.m.). They would think noth­ing of an­other morally chal­lenged dad splash­ing across their huge pool, and prob­a­bly of­fer me a gi­nor­mous glass of gin.

I’d toast their thought­ful­ness, and then be­neath the gur­gling Alka-Seltzer sky, move on to the next five-acre es­tate.

“OK, who was that?” they’d ask af­ter I trot­ted off, sun-baked as Nick Nolte.

“Used to know him,” some­one would say. “Grew up here, I think.”

Yeah, not com­pletely.

Next week: A day in Chicago, that tod­dlin’ town.

Chris Ersk­ine Los Angeles Times

TIMES CHANGE. And so do home­towns. But ra­di­ant prairie sun­sets are one of the things you can still count on in sub­ur­ban Illi­nois.

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