Street Smart Chicago

Seasons Misgivings: Christmas Has No Conscientious Objectors

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

National-Lampoons-Christmas-VacationBy Greg Langen

Taylor Swift was raised on an eleven-acre Christmas tree farm a few miles outside of Cumru Township, Pennsylvania, a small rural community located in the southeastern corner of that state. I don’t know what to do with this information right now, or why it comes so easily to my mind, but considering its heavy rotation inside my head I feel that this is somehow crucial information to consider when thinking about the holidays. I don’t know either.

We learn about the holidays from our families I suppose; that and sheer repetition. I learned how to celebrate the holidays from my dad. Unlike my mom who was sent into a feverish spin until the festivities ultimately unraveled her, my father stood in front of the holiday season and let it hit him like a truck. He didn’t so much participate in the holidays; the holidays seemed to happen to him. This is a notable difference, I think, even if the end is the same.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” first arrived in theaters on December 1, 1989. I mention this only to get the numbers right. To date, my father has watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” a total of at least twenty-three times, soon to be twenty-four. I am not that far behind. We had the VHS copy of this movie. Now we have the DVD. Despite what cultural commentaries this Christmas movie supposedly makes on my family (as opposed to, say something like the hallowed greatness of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), I forget whether or not I actually like the movie. I know that when I was younger, the image of Clark Griswold rocketing down a snow hill on a saucer greased with “non-chloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant 500 times more slippery than any other competitor’s cooking oil on the market” could send me into hysterics, but when I watch this scene today I don’t know why I am laughing. But I am laughing. My muscles retain the memory. Sitting in front of this movie I am the picture of a Happy Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »

Daunting Bird Day: Heartsick for the Holidays

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »
The Answer?

The Answer?/Photo: Keith Allison

By John Wilmes

It’s snowing in Chicago, our first one this year. The air is gray, the trees are wet and white and their limbs are flowing. I’m at home in the afternoon, flopping on a futon—heartsick, “writer,” bored, lazy, “existentialist”—watching entire NBA games from 2001, on YouTube. Perhaps there are better uses of time.

I’d been using most of my time the past few weeks to do excessive counts of vain push-ups, of vain pull-ups, and to miscalculate strategies to reign supreme in the abyss of online dating.

I’d be one of the Midwest’s premier cyber egotists, splaying the various limbs of my social-sexual “game” to maximum shine. I’d carry my bold new chest to O’Hare on the week of Thanksgiving, and breed curiosity in the flying hearts of America’s urbane not-so-youth. Their taut bodies would shiver, their pearls of eyes would blink ceaselessly as they buckled in for the clouds.

My father’s brother, a genuine turd king, would lean in respect toward me over the turkey. I’d hold a leg of the bird in each hand, and clobber him with either if he spoke out of turn. Read the rest of this entry »

Deck the Hell: Why Ornament?

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

ornamentBy Dana Norris

My family owns way too many goddamn Christmas ornaments and every year my mother buys more. She goes to Hallmark, walks up and down every aisle, peers at the delicate dangling sculptures, and picks one ornament for each of her three children that is supposed to represent our accomplishments for that year. Let’s see—Ben’s breaking his lease, so Santa Claus playing a saxophone?  A snowman swimming in a mug of hot chocolate and, improbably, not melting? The SS Enterprise with a wreath on it?

When I was twelve years old, my mother gave me an ornament of two mice in red pajamas and striped hats, sitting by a fire, stringing comically large popcorn onto a comically large needle and thread. She got me this ornament because I had a best friend. But as we children aged the tradition continued. What does a twenty-two-year-old accomplish in a year that can be expressed in ornament form? Hallmark doesn’t make a “You left your purse at the bar and went to a house party but that one hot guy from the bar was at the house party too and he brought you your purse and then you made out with him” ornament. Read the rest of this entry »

Bad Santa: An Unforgettable Employment Claus

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »
Santa

Our author in his disguise

By Eric Lutz

A couple years ago, I took a job working with kids to supplement my lavish freelance income. When I applied, I was under the impression my duties would be to provide after-school homework help to elementary age kids. But what it actually consisted of was playing basketball with a bunch of eight-year-olds and teaching them the importance of not hitting each other in the face with their hats. It was awesome.

On my first day at the school, my new boss pulled me aside: they needed someone to play Santa at their upcoming “Breakfast with Santa” event, and she was wondering if I’d be up for the job. Breakfast with Santa, I would later learn, consisted of kids taking turns sitting on my lap, telling me what they want for Christmas and eating cereal while their parents snapped pictures.

Now, Santa and I share very few characteristics, physically or personality-wise. We’re white guys who love cookies and are generally pretty pleasant, but I think that’s about where the similarities end.

Santa Claus: old, fat and jolly. Eric Lutz: young, thin and jolly for—at best—a sum forty-five minutes in the last year. Read the rest of this entry »

The Black Friday Brawl: The Importance of Owning Poo-Chi

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

Poo-ChiBy Amber Peckham

In the year 2000, when I was thirteen, my mother seemed to give up on trying to surprise me with Christmas gifts. I was now allowed to choose all my presents, even stand in line with Mom while the bar codes buzzed over the checkout laser, watching as she forked over the family’s hard-earned cash for a new Playstation game or a stack of books six deep that I couldn’t wait to dig into.

Mom forced me to go to Walmart with her on Black Friday that year. She claimed it would be good bonding time for us, but really, she needed a second soldier on the field of retail battle, and my dad was too tired to tag along. For us to get all the best deals, we would have to split up. Mom would head toward the clothing side of the store to grapple for flannel pajamas, socks, and jeans, while I would be deployed to the toy section. I was a slight girl, with mousy brown hair to my waist, unassuming and small. It would be easy for me to fight the crowds, and rabid adults would be less likely to grapple with a child. The two of us would reconnoiter in electronics, where the gem I had chosen to cap off my Christmas crown waited in the video game case as my reward—Final Fantasy IX.

This particular year, there was one toy which outshone all the others, one present my little sister Antonia had talked about day and night since the commercials began airing on Nickelodeon months before. This holy grail of holiday satisfaction was known as Poo-Chi.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Santa Fe Locomotive: For the Love of a Grandfather

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

800px-Santa_Fe_98By Naomi Huffman

My grandfather’s hands were large, his knuckles knobbed like branches, his palms calloused from years spent on my family’s farm in Blackford County, Indiana, and from working the line at the Delco Battery plant in Muncie. But he handled the pieces of his Lionel model train with ease, lifting the cars from their plastic casing one by one, connecting the couplers end to end with the sort of precision mastered only with practice and care.

There was a Santa Fe locomotive, silver and shiny, with lights that flashed as it whistled, with red and orange stripes painted down either side. There were cargo cars: yellow, blue, brown. Some had plastic windows, or tiny handles on doors the size of my child thumb. The wheels were small as dimes. My favorite car was the caboose, painted red of course, with a tiny black gate at the rear.

The train came out of its box just once a year, at Christmas, when gifts were piled around the tree set up in my grandparents’ living room. As my grandfather built tunnels with the boxes for the train to run through and tinkered with the speed settings on the transformer, my grandmother worried the tinsel on the tree, and turned the ornaments so they faced just so, and wondered aloud if the star atop it all was crooked. All the fanfare, all the fuss, it was all for us, their grandchildren. Read the rest of this entry »

The Chicago Manual: Today is the First Day of the Life of Your Mind

Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park No Comments »

chicago-manual-cover3Near the beginning of my third year in the College, I quit the football team and, days or weeks later, wandered for the first time into the Smart Museum. Though I did not notice it at the time, my life changed profoundly, and on the spot. I’d never been inside an art museum; as the son of a physicist teaching in the suburbs, our family visits to Chicago had always been bound for the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum or, most likely, Gino’s East Pizzeria. On display at the Smart that day were the watercolors of Wassily Kandinsky. I can’t explain what, but something fundamentally connected for me in viewing that exhibition. Before long, this econ-major-cum-MBA student was squeezing in as many classes as he could in art history, even convincing Professor Joel Snyder to spend a quarter conducting an independent study course in photography with me before I left for Wall Street. My wife Jan (AB ’85) and I started spending much of our free time in galleries and museums. An interest in all the other arts you’ll see covered in the pages of Newcity soon followed, and a year into my to-be-short-lived Goldman Sachs career, Jan, my brother Brent (AB ’88) and I started this publication. My life’s work connects in a direct line to that afternoon in the Smart Museum back in 1981. Read the rest of this entry »

One Perfect Life: An Ode to the Real South Side

Back of the Yards, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Chinatown, Englewood, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park, Kenwood, Little Village, Pilsen, South Shore, Southeast Side No Comments »

By Scoop Jackson

“Pharaoh of the Sun/Lookin’ down the barrel of a gun/Y’all know where I’m from.”
—from the poem “Keep On” by famous South Sider Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr. (aka Common)

We call them “pockets.” It’s the best way any of us who come from the South Side of Chicago can describe the drastic ebb and flow of the ‘hoods we live in.

“On the South Side,” real estate agent and South Side resident Chrystal Caruthers says, “you can grow up in a good neighborhood but go two blocks over and I’ll bet the people won’t feel the same.” The block-to-block change. The neighborhood-to-neighborhood shift in dynamics, living conditions and mentality. It exists in other neighborhoods in the country, but not like on the South Side in this city. The same way Chief Keef can weave tales about life on the South Side, Will Smith can come here and hang out on the lake on 31st Street and go write “Summertime.”

Growing up here gives one a perspective of range. Range in the sense of how far-reaching an area can be, how diverse and disconnected and devoted people raised on the same concrete can be. Where oftentimes the kids at Bogan were more dangerous to a young black kid than the GDs or El Rukns who went to Dunbar.

There is more beauty in the real South Side than anyone who doesn’t live here could understand. Through all of the bullshit, all of the incidents that happen on the side of Chicago that gives it the nicknames “Homicide Capital” and “Chiraq,” there exist pockets of life that bring an unmatched sense of pride and joy not found anywhere else in the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Chasing Temporary Anonymity: Find the Courage to Be a Nobody

Education/Training, Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park 2 Comments »
Harper Library/Photo: Tom Rossiter

Harper Library/Photo: Tom Rossiter

By Greg Langen, MA ’13

Welcome to the University of Chicago. If the manicured quadrangles did not tip you off, you have arrived at one of the most intellectually rigorous and prestigious research universities in the world. But I’m sure you already know this. I’m sure you’ve already looked up the rankings of the school and your particular programs, crosschecked them with the schools that rejected you, compared them with the school that that one kid from your high school got into. If you are an incoming First Year, I’m sure you’re a bit anxious about starting classes, a bit uneasy about those things that you saw on your roommate’s Facebook page. And I know some of you are rapidly wondering where you can buy fresh goji berries or coconut water in Chicago. Don’t worry. I’m sure they’re here somewhere.

However, before you allow the pomp to confer upon you either a sense of accomplishment and/or an obligation to be unendingly brilliant, I kindly ask you to find the courage this year to be an absolute nobody.

Last year, before setting foot on campus, I made the mistake of Googling the notable University of Chicago alumni, assuming that in some absurd and distant way me and say, Philip Glass, were now somehow connected. We aren’t. At all. Read the rest of this entry »

The Air Down Here: Finding Myself in Hyde Park Without Even Attending the University

Essays & Commentary, Hyde Park, Lit, Literary Venues No Comments »

photoBy John Wilmes

At first, I felt like an outcast. I lived against my will in quaint, pastoral places, and screamed about things which no one near me understood. I saw the city as my escape. At first, I merely wanted to belong to Chicago, to belong to it at all.

But once I did, once I’d been paying too much rent and squeezing through the Blue Line for some months, jittery with my sense of inclusion, I grew to want something more. I wanted for my leanings—my preferences for the written, for the expressed, for the over-thought and the intellectually overwrought—to flow freely. For my bibliophilia and existential self-pummeling to be worth something; for them to find a home. I’d long assumed the city was pure fertilizer for the madness I’d always felt, that it was a place for my socio-political yowling to take root, to bloom. This, I thought, was where the alienation I felt through all my suburban life, through all my years in the Big Ten, would be assuaged.

But it wasn’t. I was too surrounded by those merely feigning to feel what I felt. They’d only scheme tragic visions with me until they found a beer, a joint, the correctly musty bar, or the sound of a song that was properly sold to them—at which point they were as opiated as anyone, and closed themselves to the continued crocheting of our dystopian, perversely celestial quilt of the world. I would have to stay up sculpting it myself in Microsoft Word, through any number of failed novels. I would have to fall asleep with my shoes and sweatshirt on, with all of the lights on, with my fingers on the keyboard. Read the rest of this entry »