I was born and raised in Chicago.
How I thought of that city, which I left before I became an adult, was cloaked and colored under the family who brought me up there and who soaked their biases into my head.
That Chicago, more specifically Lincolnwood, became a suffocating, judgmental, intolerant and petty landscape of cruelty, snobbery, and competitiveness in which I, and my family, were on the receiving, and losing end.
In light of the present, where I know of the real atrocities around the world, the things that happened back then in Lincolnwood were small and fleeting and insignificant.
But they still stung me. And have stayed with me.
A few months ago, I did one of my Facebook searches for people I once knew in Lincolnwood.
One infamous and notorious name came up. To protect the guilty I will call him Arthur Knox.
A blue-eyed, athletic, deviously charming and good-looking kid, he was the child of a Highway Construction Foreman who washed his Black 1963 Fleetwood Cadillac on the driveway every Sunday.
Arthur ran faster than everyone. In his bedroom he hung posters and pennants of his favorite heroes from the Black Hawks to the Cubs. In school, he was the captain of any team in gym class.
By contrast, my own disinterest in sports grew as I was pushed into Little League. I hated standing in the hot, humid sun waiting in center field for someone to hit a ball out to me.
I also had not a single interest in any Chicago sports team: a fatal flaw in The Windy City.
Instead, I read from my 1960 World Book Encyclopedia while Arthur Knox and other boys set up ball games on the street and played football on nearby lawns.
Gradually, my lack of interest in sports worried and angered my mother. She may have perceived a dark funnel cloud of homosexuality on the horizon.
Arthur Knox bullied me on the bus. He called me “the world’s suckiest athlete.” I went home and told my mother about it. She replied, “I don’t even know what that word suck means. Forget about it!”
At the bus stop, Arthur taunted me and another girl with dog shit on a stick. On another day, he rode after me on his bike, with his pal Keating, tackling me near the Devon Avenue Bridge and beating me up in the dirt. Nothing had provoked it. He just felt like it.
Was I shot? No. Was I bloodied? No. The scale of violence was mild, but my rage was deep. Arthur was terrifying. He had to be avoided but he ruled over the street.
40 years later, he was a “Life Coach” and a father, married, and had competed in a triathlon in which he apparently almost lost his life, later revived by paramedics. He went on to tell his resurrection story on a nationally broadcast program.
On Facebook, the accolades of praise for Arthur Knox poured in. “World’s Best Father”, “The Man who Taught Me What it Means to be a Man”, “The Greatest Friend Anyone Could Have.” Arthur had posts against bullying, posts about gratitude, posts about love, family and life.
His life of conformity to alpha male values was vindicated. Competitive in sports and business, he basked in praise. Millions knew his outer accomplishments. Only I remembered his temper and violence.
And the popular kids, the ones who I used to call “The Snob Club”, they were all his friends on Facebook. And the virtual world of 2015 was as alive with sycophants as the real one of 1975.
Why bring up the story of Arthur Knox? He is nobody important. He just seemed important back then. And some think he’s important today.
On my recent trip to Chicago, one sunny late July afternoon, I went down to Montrose Harbor.
Everything was in primary colors.
The day was glorious and the setting magnificent: the blue sky and the white clouds, the enormous grassy lawn park, the yachts and the boats moored at their port, the skyline in the distance, the red lighthouse and white sailboats, the bleached rocks on the shore and turquoise tinted Lake Michigan.
A tall, tanned young man in board shorts was hoisting a sailboat off its trailer and attempting to attach it to a steel armed lift that he would use to crank and lower it into the lake. I asked him what he was doing. He asked me if I would help him.
I jumped in and directed him as he steered the boat on wheels and hooked it onto the crane. We pushed, pulled, and guided the vessel into the water.
After we were done he told me he worked at Mariano’s in the western suburbs. “Dude, I’m a butcher!” And on his day off, he eagerly came down to work at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club at Montrose Harbor. Sun burned butcher on the dock on his day off….
He picked up a cold can of Colt 45 and drank it. He thanked me for helping him and asked me if I had to use a bathroom or anything. I said yes, and he let me go into the clubhouse facilities.
We said goodbye and I told him I would put his photo up on Instagram.
Something about that day seemed intrinsically Chicagoan: friendly, un-menacing, bonding, open- hearted, fun, casual, and unaffected.
Maybe there are people and moments like that in Los Angeles, but they are often colored by ulterior motives, either sexual or vocational.
Am I being too generous to Chicago? Is there anything truly odd or notable about that day on Montrose Harbor?
Is it logical to bestow attributes on someone just because of where they live?
At lunch, Judy Mamet, lifelong Chicagoan for eight decades, said her city is often “judgmental.”
She was speaking to me, an Angelino, who often hears that everything is “cool”. On the West Coast we hide our indifference by calling it toleration.
Maybe what I remember most about Chicago was its judgments.
I think of that stern Lutheran neighbor in the knee socks who walked her girls to church every Sunday. She came to say good-bye when were moving out and told my Mom that she was glad my retarded brother had been institutionalized because she pitied watching Jimmy and my mom played catch. My mother later said she wanted to throw acid in her face.
I think of Mrs. Libman, my 6th Grade teacher who taught the subject I could never learn: math. I grew to dislike her.
One day, my friend and I rode our bikes in front of her house, yelling out “Mrs. Libman! Mrs. Libman!” She came out of the side door and yelled at us. Later on my friend apologized to her. But I never did. Then my Mom and I bumped into Mrs. Libman at Marshall Field & Co. at Old Orchard. “Howard Kenneth apologized to me but your son never did,” she said. “I’m sorry Mrs. Libman,” I said.
Think about how un-criminal our behavior was. Yet it was scandalous. And that old Chicago standard of judgment still haunts my morality.
And those small lives predicated on big morality, they seem to still thrive in the Windy City, those people who have never left there, who exist in the mental and geographical landscape of the Middle West where you cut your lawn because your neighbors would look down on you if you didn’t. And you go to work everyday because if you didn’t you would not only starve but be banished out of the family of normality and acceptance.
Embarrassment and shame, the cabal of middle-aged moms and dads who enforce good behavior, the presumption that there is a right and a wrong, the correctness and goodness of the white race, the idea that life goes off the rails because of moral defects, these are deep in the DNA of Chicago and the Middle-West. Pope John Paul II and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have called Chicago “The Most American of Cities.”
They said it patriotically. I quote it ironically.
Proudly, Chicagoans will show off their lakefront, their new parks, their “architecture” and their feats of engineering and artistry. But what they are also saying is that their city is who they are. And that is why, when a Chicagoan is told that his city is racist, or a murder capitol or not as good as New York, he reacts with anger and hurt. You are hurting the Chicagoan to speak against Chicago.
And that is what makes it unlike any city in America. The city and the man in it are the same.