Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | November 13, 2011

For Theo Epstein: A New Englander’s Introduction to Chicago

(This originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, November 13, 2011. And Theo still moved here anyway.)


Well, now that it’s official, I’d like to say Theo Epstein, welcome to Chicago! You’re going to love it here. But I know, as a fellow New Englander, adjusting to life in the Midwest poses some challenges. I arrived here several years ago, straight from the home of the bean and the cod, and wasn’t sure what to expect. (Chicago? You mean that place where we change planes if the direct to LA is overbooked?) So, I thought I’d take it upon myself to share with you some of the things you’ll encounter when you arrive. To that end, I’m going to take a little tour of Chicago quirks. Want to come with?

See, that’s the first one right there: “come with.” No pronoun. Presumably in Chicago, if you’re asking someone to join you, it’s clear that you are the one with whom he/she will be traveling. No need to add the pronoun, I guess. But it’s jarring to the New England ear. In fact, you may think the speaker has suffered a small stroke and is unable to finish the sentence. Rest assured, there’s no reason to call 911 when someone says “Going to Potbelly for lunch – you want to come with?” It’s just the way they talk around these parts. You can silently add the pronoun in your head.

And when you’re on your way to Potbelly, be careful. They don’t know how to drive here. They stop at stop signs, yield when they’re supposed to, and – watch out for this – when the traffic light turns yellow, they slow down instead of speeding up. I can’t even count the number of people I nearly rear-ended when we first arrived. What’s more, banging a left in that nanosecond before the light turns green is frowned upon. As you’ll soon find out, driving here requires a whole new level of patience. Fortunately, there’s one spot that will seem like home: the Edens. Whenever you get homesick, just hop on the Edens and within seconds you’ll see people tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, or cutting up the side lane. It may just bring a little tear to your eye.

Another thing that’s different here? The weather. Oh, sure, people will tell you the winters are the same as the East Coast. But they lie. Winters in Boston vacillate between huge, ridiculous snowstorms and days of blindingly clear sunshine. Here, there are streaks of frigid, gray days that stretch on for weeks at a time, making you want to smack yourself over the head with your snow shovel. And on those gray days, it will snow all day, and yet never seem to accumulate. I still haven’t figured out how that’s possible. Plus, winters here are longer. You know how back in Boston, the start of April is usually the tipping point where you can stash the winter coat for good? Well here it’s a little later. Like Mother’s Day. Heck, just keep the winter coat out all year long.

On the plus side, the city is more equipped to handle winter. Chicagoans know how to deal with snow. School cancellations are few and far between. The flat roads and easy-to-navigate grid system mean that a few flakes won’t bring the entire city to a grinding halt (well, there was that famous blizzard last year, but that was an exception.)

Fortunately, the warm people make up for the cold winters. You’ll find Chicagoans are exceptionally friendly, to the point that it might make you uncomfortable. Complete strangers will chat with you in elevators or in line at Starbucks (as you already know). Back in Boston, strangers only talk to you if they want to rob you or if they’re mentally unstable. Here, they’re just trying to be nice. I know, it’s bizarre, but eventually you’ll come to like it.

On the radio, don’t go looking for WBZ on the dial. You might find WBEZ, but that’s completely different (think public radio, not traffic on the threes). To make yourself feel at home, you can just recite the WBZ traffic report in your head. It was always the same, after all: “Expressway heavy and slow by the gas tank, Pike inbound slow at Newton Corner and again at the Pru tunnel….” You can even try to make your voice sound like Gary LaPierre’s, just for fun. As for music stations, I’ve got nothing for you. Q101 used to be equivalent to FNX, but now the station went with a news/talk format and I’m still mad.

One thing I struggled with when we first moved here was the lack of day-trip destinations. I remember in Boston, on a sunny Saturday, we’d throw the bikes on the back of the car, pack a cooler filled with snacks and head out, maybe up to the rocky coast of Cape Ann, or down to the sandy beaches of Cape Cod. We’d hit Newport to gawk at the mansions, or hike the rolling hills around Amherst to admire the foliage. Alas, here, everything within an hour’s drive of Chicago looks remarkably like everything else within an hour’s drive of Chicago. Fortunately, there are some destinations to check out. Wisconsin is a slightly flatter New Hampshire; Michigan is a less densely populated Cape Cod (minus the salt air – you’ll feel like you’re in Chatham but with a stuffy nose). There’s even that ugly stretch of highway in Indiana, which is the equivalent to 93 by the Dorchester gas tank – just avert your eyes and keep going.

Chicago is a fabulous foodie town, and there are lots of food lingo differences here, but no doubt you’ll figure them out. First off, of course, no one says tonic, because no one west of 128 says tonic. Same with jimmies. And be careful: they’ve got this anti-ketchup thing going with the hot dogs. Don’t question it. Just go with it. Fortunately, the pizza is fabulous. Nothing like Regina’s, that’s for sure, but delicious. However, it’s a tad heavy on the calories. You’ve been warned. You’ve heard about the gaining the Freshman Five? Wait ’til you put on the Chicago Ten.

The accent here is generally quite palatable to the non-native ear. Unlike back in Boston, the words “car keys” and “khakis” sound nothing like each other. So keep that in mind, lest you want people to think you’re walking around trying to remember where you left your pants. And certainly don’t say that things are “wicked pissa.”

You might think that a “parkway” is some sort of road, like the Hammond Pond Parkway. Alas, it’s not. It’s that strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Driving on it is not recommended. People here don’t cut in line, they budge. And I’ve never heard anyone here hosie anything. As for landmarks, everyone still says Sears Tower and Marshall Fields, no matter what the signs say.

I’m sure there are a million things that I’m forgetting, and I didn’t even venture into the quirks of politics and sports. I’ll let you figure those out on your own. But these few points should help make your transition easier. You’re going to love Chicago. It’s a wicked pissa city!

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