“If you don’t like the weather, wait three minutes,” a friend told me soon after I landed in Chicago. This is one of the most frequently uttered clichés about the Windy City, and now I know why. I arrived to fine spring sunshine, and in no time was treated to cloud banks advancing in a gloomy armada, followed by a rain squall, a mini heat spell—and snow. The shadow falling over the window as I unpacked in my room at the Peninsula was caused by a flurry that abruptly turned the area into a snow globe. This micro-climatic event lasted roughly 10 minutes and then cleared. It was May again.
I had come to Chicago to check out the celebrated food scene and to see the stores where Michelle Obama buys the clothes that have transformed her into if not the most fashion-conscious First Lady ever (that would be a toss-up between Mary Todd Lincoln and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), then certainly the only president’s wife to have worn Commes des Garçons. And, of course, I planned to explore the spectacular new Renzo Piano–designed addition to the Art Institute of Chicago.
I already knew about Chicago’s world-class architecture and world-class art collections, that it was the American birthplace of molecular physics and is ground zero for molecular gastronomy on this continent. I was aware that its fecund political scene somehow birthed both the Jerry Springer–style train-wreck governor Rod Blagojevich and … that other guy, the leader of the free world.
Still, for me Chicago had too long been terra incognita, which is why I understood when Erin Hogan, public affairs director of the Art Institute, told me too many people “still have this misconception that Chicago is all crooked politicians, guns, and gangsters. You know, Al Capone. Bang, bang.”
I will give you this. The odds are long that not 20 minutes after this exchange occurred I would stumble across a shoot-out in the middle of Michigan Avenue, specifically the swanky retail stretch of it called the Magnificent Mile. A thing like that could happen anywhere in our gun-happy country. But until I hit Chicago I had never seen a cop draw a gun before. Now I have. The event served to illustrate how paradoxical Chicago can be, and not just in the imagination. The city is, as advertised, staccato, chic, dynamic, and like something out of a cartoon.
The Chicago I encountered turned out to be less the monolithic Second City than a congeries of neighborhoods, entirely unalike. It is a surprisingly mercurial place operating under the marine influence of Lake Michigan, a body of water so vast and oceanic you could sink Vermont and New Hampshire in it all but invisibly.