People are always moving from Chicago to New York. This is not news. But in 1991 a lot of people left New York to move here. For most of the eight years I’ve lived in Chicago, that’s been about as rare as a decent thin-crust pizza. I can’t say that it’s happening south of the Loop (since becoming a Chicagoan I haven’t left the neighborhood much), but throughout the past year I’ve met newly arrived ex-New Yorkers all over the north side–applying for work, and sometimes getting it; splitting checks at restaurants and bars; lost on the subway, and on the el; weaving around the strollers on Belmont Avenue, wearing their Mets caps and Betsey Johnson originals. Why are they here? What do they want?
An easier life, perhaps. Despite the Manhattan adage “Chicago’s a nice place to visit, but does anybody actually live there?” all the new arrivals I’ve spoken with like it here. Some will even admit to preferring Chicago, in some respects. They like the reduced tension, and lower prices, but they’re happy that they still have plenty of things to bitch about. It’s cold, it’s hot. So many people here are really big (New York has a larger population, but they’re mostly smaller in stature). When people here ask “What do you think of Chicago?” they don’t want to hear anything bad. New Yorkers have always been among the most vicious critics of their hometown, but they find that this habit doesn’t go over well out here.
There’s much to learn in a new environment. You can learn it hard (that’s “hard” with a hard r), or you can learn it easy. Since so many of you are now here, for whatever reason, here’s a little guide that attempts to answer some of the big questions. We offer it in the hope that it may prevent unnecessary conflicts in 1992.
The Niceness Factor: A couple of months ago a clerk at a bookstore was explaining his reasons for moving here from New York when he was cut off in midsentence by a customer who said he’d also just moved here from New York. Maybe living here will teach him to be more polite. Politeness isn’t everything, though. Chicagoans pretend that they’re nice people who, like Norman Bates, wouldn’t harm a fly. Don’t believe it. Behind the pleasant visage of the person who asks you to “have a nice day” is a tough, resourceful enemy. Keep your sarcastic impulses in check. Just because the big guy sitting on the bar stool next to you says “How are ya?” in a high, squeaky voice, it doesn’t make him any less dangerous than his equivalent in New York. Maybe even more.
Dialect: Chicagoans will claim that they have no accent. They’ll tell you you’re the one with the accent. This is silly, of course, but you can find middle ground. You don’t have to start saying “pop” instead of “soda” or “jagoff” for “jerkoff.” If someone asks “Can I help you?” that means “Whattaya want?” People here don’t say “fuck” anywhere near as much as they do in the east (David Mamet notwithstanding). One to a sentence, please. You don’t have to lose your identity to fit in, just calm down and get comfortable, which leads us to the next category, a real plus for ex-New Yorkers:
Comfort: Let’s face it, if you’re from New York there is no place in this country in which you can feel truly comfortable. New Yorkers are treated with distrust and contempt throughout the United States. It’s the opposite if you’re from Chicago. Chicagoans are respected and welcome everywhere, even in New York, unless they’re actors or TV personalities or work for the Tribune. Now that you’re a Chicagoan, you have gained American citizenship. Feel free to travel anywhere, except maybe Miami (where all northerners are assumed to be from New York) or Detroit.
Fashion: You don’t dress up in Chicago, dressing down is the norm here. Chicagoans are so unpretentious that they’re actually pretentious about being unpretentious. Act accordingly, or you too will get funny looks everywhere but by the lakefront. (Note: Yes it looks dumb, but damn, it’s winter, wear a warm hat with earflaps.)
Food: Very heavy. While you can certainly find a restaurant here that will charge you more for the privilege of serving you less, just like in New York or LA, they’re few and far between. You say you’ve tried stuffed pizza but it looks more like a casserole than a pizza? At least it’s served on a plate. Thai food and Mexican are much better here, Chinese and Indian are worse. Anywhere you eat will be cheaper than your old neighborhood greasy spoon, but now that you live in Chicago, you probably have a kitchen. You can now learn to cook.
Cost: A woman who moved here this year from New York told this story: While at the laundromat, she struck up a brief conversation with another woman who was visiting from New York. The visitor said she was considering moving here. She loaded a few things into a washing machine. After closing the lid, she crouched over the change slide, squinting at it very closely, like a jeweler examining a diamond. She looked up, shook her head rapidly, and squinted at it again. The woman watching her was afraid to ask if she needed help. She thought she might be crazy. The woman visiting from New York then looked over suddenly, threw her hands up in the air, and asked, “Only a dollar?”
Sex: According to a recent survey, Chicagoans tend to couple more than people in any other large American city. (Perhaps this is due to living on the prairie. Partner will not roll away.) Gay or straight, if you moved here single, you probably won’t stay single for long. Women here are not as afraid as they are in New York; men are just as devious and conniving but not anywhere near as neurotic. Everyone is friendlier. Safer sex is likelier here, in more ways than one.
Crime: Safer streets too. Having lived in New York, you’ve definitely been robbed on the street at least once, if not dozens of times. Statistically, this is less likely here. In Chicago, you’re much more likely to be burgled, picked up by the cops for something you wouldn’t have thought twice about doing back in New York, or mashed into jelly by some big guy with a squeaky voice. Some people may be fooled into thinking that you’re tough because of your accent (they’ve seen too many movies), but most won’t. Be advised too that while prisoners in New York are sent upstate (thus the phrase “up the river”), prisoners in Illinois are shipped downstate.
Politics: In New York, government corruption is well hidden, surfacing only every ten years or so. Here it’s all out in the open, and the people love it. Maybe it has something to do with the midwestern nature–open, big-hearted, mercenary, but sincerely mercenary. Whatever the cause, remember, it’s no accident that the last great New York City corruption scandal surfaced due to revelations made in Chicago. The Parking Violations Bureau scandal, as it was known in New York, broke when tapes were released showing government informer Michael Raymond receiving cash from a Chicago alderman in a Lake Point Tower apartment; a couple days later Queens borough president Donald Manes committed suicide over those tapes, and eventually the scandal brought down most of New York’s municipal government, including “Mayor for Life” Ed Koch. Several Chicago politicians were implicated as well. But nobody here thought it was worth dying over.
Animal Life: I don’t want to alarm anyone, but there are places in Chicago that don’t have any roaches. It’s true. Also, while the insect and wild animal population of New York is pretty much limited to roaches, water bugs, rats, squirrels, and pigeons, here in Chicago you’ll find a broad cross-section of fauna, including ants, spiders, silverfish, bees, wasps, hornets, chipmunks, possum, raccoon, rabbits . . . And there are fish in the river. Chicago is a naturalist’s delight!
Transportation: If you’re from New York you’re accustomed to getting around on mass transit. But this isn’t New York. The price of a train ride is actually higher here, some buses don’t run at night, the routes are confusing, and the town stretches out forever. The lake is east and the prairie is west. The fish are jumping and the corn is high. It’s winter and you don’t want to walk around too much. Save your money, learn how to drive, and buy a car. You’re an American now.
Miscellaneous Dos and Don’ts: Don’t call people from Wisconsin “cheeseheads” until you’ve been here for at least ten years. Do continue to make jokes about New Jersey, for this is a national pastime. Don’t name-drop unless it’s something pretty good. Like, nobody wants to hear that you used to live in the same apartment building as the Fonz. If you lived in the same apartment with the Fonz, you might get an audience. When job hunting, don’t tell interviewers where you come from; they’ll think you couldn’t make it there, so you can’t make it anywhere. Don’t ever use the phrases “Second City envy” or “world-class city,” not even on the phone. You can put down Harry Caray as much as you like, but don’t say bad things about any Chicago teams until people stop saying you have an accent. Everybody here is bigger than you, so don’t be a jerkoff. Or jagoff. In a couple of years you’ll start to feel almost at home.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jennifer Berman.