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