Part of me will always belong to my first love — Chicago. It’s why I am a Bears, Bulls, and White Sox fan, why I say things like gym shoes, bed clothes, and food shopping. It’s why I feel most comfortable in big, metropolitan areas, why I go crazy on St. Patrick’s Day, why I never order hot dogs with ketchup, why I hate soccer.
Like a lot of regions in the states, Chicago has its own culture. And distinctive culinary leanings. Let me debrief you, so you know how to spot an authentic Chicago eatery.
Chicago hot dog:
Beef hot dog, a small salad on-top (pickle, lettuce, tomato, chopped onions, neon-green relish), poppy seed bun, mustard, no ketchup. Served with accordion-shaped cheese fries.
Sauce on top, layer of a sausage so fresh and tasty I am quite sure it exists nowhere else, and a thick cornmeal crust. There’s a place in Seattle that claims to serve Chicago-style pizza and has none of the aforementioned criteria. That frustrates me. Who you trying to kid with that pizza pot pie?
“That’s not Chicago style” is a common phrase of mine when dining at these faux-Chicago establishments. I know it makes me sound like a jerk, but if you’re going to claim to do a regional cuisine well, you better deliver.
Going downtown, my heart would quicken, along with my steps. A cacophony of car horns, whistles, drumming, and voices. The people zig zagging two and fro, scattering or coming together, shopping, fighting, touring.
My mom worked weekends when I was about twelve at LaSalle Street and I can still feel that odd rush of cold air that greeted us in the tunnel of the train station. On weekdays, we’d be surrounded by secretaries, impeccably dressed except for their “gym shoes,” which would be exchanged for heels upon arrival at the office. I remember going out to get donuts or sandwiches with my sister and exploring the city, relatively quiet on Sundays, except for a few weekend workers, lost tourists, and street newspaper peddlers.
Grant Park and its surrounds gets my teenage years. I ran barefoot around the Buckingham Fountain after prom. I went to the Taste to watch the fireworks show almost every year until I moved.
I went to one of the post-championship Bulls rallies (again in Grant Park) and nearly passed out in the crowd because during the excitement of that morning, I forgot to eat breakfast.
I took my first parentless cab from the train station to see a punk rock show in the United Center parking lot. The ride cost $8 and I had exactly that in my budget. We forgot to save for the taxi back to the station and ended up having to call my friend’s sister (from a pay phone) to get us.
Seeing the Sears Tower, standing there tall and proud, the peak in the skyline, feels like seeing an old friend. It was tallest building in the world during most of my childhood. Even though it always gives me vertigo, I look all the way up, follow its sleek black silouhette to the two white antennas, piercing the bellies of clouds.
Whenever I see it, it reminds me that I come from the “city of broad shoulders,” shoulders so broad they once held the tallest building in the world. And Kanye West.
I never thought I would feel that way about a landmark again, until the sky finally opened in Seattle and I saw Mt. Rainier.
There it was. A giant thumbprint, half shrouded in clouds, lemon-yellow rays of the sun pointing to it, as if to say “look at this.”
The Mountain, Seattlelites call it.
They measure the weather by whether or not The Mountain is visible. “The mountain is out!” translates to “It’s sunny. Get your ass outside.” The first few months in Seattle, I would gaze in wonderment at it whenever I needed a beautiful reminder why I left for the West Coast.
I spent this past Labor Day at Mt. Rainier trying to capture patches of snow set on forest-green valleys and magenta sagebrush with my camera. I realized I have been in Seattle for almost 6 years, not counting the year and a half I lived in Quebec.
Mt. Rainier is what I look to when I am literally lost or just feeling lost.
I didn’t want to write about the Chateau at first. It once filled me with dread. I lived one block from it. It is touted as the most photographed hotel in the world.
The thing about living one block from the most photographed hotel in the world is that people want to take pictures of it. So much so that on my way to the car, which was unfortunately, parked all the way down in Basse-ville, I would have to step in the street to avoid a river of tourists on the sidewalk. During high season, it took me an extra 15-20 minutes because of all the stopping and photographing and asking directions and pointing.
Don’t live by major landmarks.
But then. There were bad days in Quebec, lonely, cold days. And I would go people-watching at the Chateau. I used it not only to help with orientation, but with progress.
People began to ask me where the landmark was located, sometimes in French and sometimes in English. I finally started being able to answer them in French. I was eventually able to say where I was from and what I was doing in the city.
The hotel holds some of my favorite memories: my first-ever iced cider sipped next to a warm fire in an old bar with high ceilings and arched windows. Sledding down the Glissades de Terrasse with friends from French class. Watching dog-sled races on the street during Winter Carnival. Quebec can be cold but the Chateau is always alive, always warm and inviting.
Out my apartment’s window almost every night, my husband and I heard the clip clop of horse and carriages (caleches!) and we’d look at each other with shared disbelief. What are we doing in this remarkable city?
What are your favorite hometown landmarks and why? Please comment below.