Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fool for the City

With all apologies to Foghat and one of my favorite songs of all time, of the many things I’ve discovered in the past two-plus years, the fact that I’m a fool for the city may be both the most surprising and satisfying.

When I took the CEO gig in Chicago in early fall of 2009, I was looking forward to being around the city. I’ve always loved large cities and all that they offer, and had at times fantasized about living in the heart of one of them—typically Washington, DC or maybe NYC. But it was not on my mind in coming to the Windy City and my next career step. And being downtown had never even occurred to me.

I spent the first month or so looking at soul-less tract apartments in the suburbs that were within ten or fifteen minutes of work…but they were all pretty expensive, I still had cable and utilities to account for, and I was looking at $10-12k to furnish them. You couldn’t walk to bars or restaurants, your neighbors were all twenty-somethings just starting out. I just couldn’t embrace it.

Of course the thought of living in downtown Chicago was just as absurd. How could I afford that? What about parking? Never happen.

But then one night sitting in my hotel suite in Oak Brook I was just stumbling around on Apartments.com and up pops this great little two bedroom, furnished, in the south loop. The price was so ridiculously cheap that I didn’t even look at it for three weeks—there must be something wrong with the building, I thought. But it had literally everything but sheets and towels, included all utilities and extraneous costs, looked great in the pictures, and had a really appealing location…so one week when I was staying downtown for a conference, I went on a Saturday to take a look.

My first clue was as soon as I walked in. Yes it had granite countertops and marble bathrooms and was charming, yes it was decorated very much in my style, yes it was on the twelfth floor with a balcony, and yes it had indoor parking. But there, sitting on the counter, was an Indiana University Kelley School of Business decorative plate. That’s where my daughter was going to school, and my son wanted to attend. That’s where my future landlord had gone as well. Turned out he was a year younger than me and we’d grown up about 40 miles apart in northern Indiana. Bill ended up being a really great guy and a terrific landlord.

Cue the lightning bolt and cut to the sun streaming in the sliding glass door.

It was over before it began. I had to have it. We signed all the paperwork and I moved in three weeks later.

What’s happened in the ensuing two years can only be called an epiphany. Turns out I’m a city dweller…for a guy who grew up on a farm and put himself through school raising feeder pigs, mowing yards and detailing cars, who knew? But I love everything about it: the restaurants and bars, the museums, the symphony, the theater, the lakefront. Taking the train to the north side for a game; sometimes just to have a drink at Murphy’s while a game is going on. Even the sirens at night. It’s a vibrant life and style that I have absolutely embraced, and I am going to miss it immensely.

The best mornings include walking to the Lake Michigan shorefront, and either working up a sweat or just sitting on a bench listening to seagulls and watching people jog by while I sipped coffee. My favorite workout is doing a three and a half mile lap around Grant Park; starting by going to the waterfront and walking it’s length to the north, and then circling back and coming down Michigan Avenue. Doing that before work is akin to the warm up laps before a race: here is your soul in the sun coming up over the water, and here is the traffic and bustle and pace of the world as you come back into the city…it‘s like building up your revs for a running start.

In the summers, the Chicago Symphony runs through their weekend show every Wednesday evening in the Millenium Park shell, and you can go for free. So if I could get home in time, I’d throw a bottle of wine in a bag with a glass, some kind of picnic food and a blanket, and walk the eight or ten blocks to sit on the grass in the park and listen to one of the great musical ensembles in the world perform a master work.

All by myself.

That might be the most interesting thing I’ve discovered. Living in the midst of all these people and energy and pace is one of the most comfortable places in the world to be by yourself. Rather than intimidating, everyone is friendly; I think because we’re all in this together. People talk on the elevators, say hi on the street. Waitresses will stop and talk to you routinely. Not because they’re hitting on you or interested in a big tip; it’s because we’re all living in the city and it’s like being in a great private club. I’ve had people I meet at the dry cleaner or café or in the lobby invite me over for coffee or drinks after a brief conversation.

My doorman Ken routinely harasses me when I wear my Cardinals gear for a game at Wrigley. Of course he also donned a Cardinals hat, and called me to come to the desk to pick up a fictitious package the Monday morning after we won the World Series so he could both satisfy a bet and offer his respects and laugh with me about my team’s success. A Cubs fan no less!

I use to hate eating alone when I traveled on business. I’d rather sit in my room then venture out. But with my experience in the city it’s become an anticipated pleasure, because you’re going to meet someone and make a friend, or at the very least just enjoy a great time with your service staff.

The memories could make up encyclopedic volumes. Walking two blocks to the Firehouse for a steak; drinks watching a gorgeous post-storm sunset from the rooftop; countless games and concerts and walks. Talking to neighbors’ dogs in the park or elevator. My pals who waited on me at Flo’s and Wabash Tap and Little Branch and the Dry Cleaner. The entire young, friendly, and eminently tattooed staff at Whole Foods.

The view looking back on the city from the Planetarium peninsula, bathed in a fresh early morning dew as the sun first put light on it. Calm, crisp fall Sunday’s when I could open the balcony door and hear the Soldier Field stadium announcer call out every Bears first down, following the roar of the crowd. Knowing that someone from the Sox just went yard because I could hear the fireworks exploding twenty blocks away.

The concerts alone would get their own book. Kiss at the UC on my first weekend in town. Paul McCartney at Wrigley. Coldplay at Lollapalooza with the lighted night cityscape as a stage backdrop. Ray Lamontagne and Brandi Carlile at the Millenium Park shell. Two Chicago Blues festivals. Joe Bonamassa and Chelsea Handler at the Chicago theater. U2 and Bon Jovi at Soldier Field on hot summer nights. And evenings without number at Reggie’s or Kingston Mines or Buddy Guy’s listening to every kind of act under the sun, but mostly just smoking hot Chicago blues.

So it’s with a thankful but heavy heart that I finish packing up my little apartment this week. The two bedrooms did exactly what I hoped: they provided a place for my kids and my friends to come and share in the pleasures of the city with me. I love having guests and entertaining, and that has been a real treat here. From birthday visits from Scott Kline and Greg Miller, to the closeness I re-established with “cousin” Hack on his frequent weekends to the city (he and wife Sue still own the two best visits: the impromptu weekend during my first Chicago Blues Festival, and later that summer when they blew into town for my surprise “50th Birthday Party” that was two plus months after my birthday), to Newly and Cooper and Davey Wilson and the weekends when Alex or Dane would pile in with two or three of their friends, to being able to share it with my good friends the Ryans when they needed to be close to the University of Chicago hospital. Half a dozen impromptu “cocktail parties” when people visiting town on business would come over to sit on the balcony. Amazing times and recollections, every single one.

Speaking of the balcony, that’s been a magical place. That’s become my do-it-yourself version of a therapist’s couch. Sipping wine on a glossy summer night; puffing a cigar in one of Chicago’s numerous snow storms; coffee on a beautiful Saturday morning or watching a weeknight thunderstorm. The many pictures you’ve all come to enjoy and comment on in my Facebook posts.

I was never much on a Florida retirement. Maybe Arizona or California; nice weather and less humidity. Even Colorado. But that’s all smoke from a distant fire now. My second home is going to be a downtown apartment. Most likely Chicago, but could be DC too. I’m not cutout for tee times and beaches—though the occasional long weekend or ten day respite is nice. I’m a concert, ball game, dinner and theater, New York Times-on-Saturday-morning-with-coffee kind of guy.

So while I’m not going to the city, but rather am leaving, I can assure you that I have it on my mind. The country sure is pretty, but I’m going to leave it all behind. ‘Cause when I hit that inner city, child, I’m walking on a cloud.

Turns out I’m a fool for the city. ;-)

(And yes, I took all of these photos myself on my iPhone--the obvious exceptions being the two that I appear in)


  1. Greg, this is beautiful. It makes me miss my days near the city and note how I took that time for granted. You did more in your 2 years there than I did in the 27 years that I was a stone's throw from all of that and more.

    There is soething truly special about you that makes you not only drives you to capture these feelings in writing but that allows you to share the with the world. Thank you so much!

    ~ kelly johnson