MCCAUGHEY: Living in the 606

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Photo by Nora

The Chicago skyline on a sunny day.

“Are you guys from Chicago?” the cashier in Milwaukee asked me. I proudly told her I am, and she responded that she is also from the Windy City. 

 I asked what part she’s from, and she gave me the name of a suburb. 

“Oh, so not Chicago,” I joked, which is my go-to line for this situation. She countered the way most people do, huffing and going on the defense. “Well, I went downtown every weekend, so I basically lived there.” 

Whenever I hear this it’s like nails on a chalkboard. 

It tells me everything I need to know about this woman’s relationship with my hometown of 21 years: she knows absolutely nothing. Only someone with a surface level knowledge of Chicago could possibly think that downtown is the only part of the city worth visiting, and only someone from a suburb would say that living outside the city is the same as living in it.

The cashier may have experienced Navy Pier and Lollapalooza, but something tells me she never had to learn the Cubs’ playing schedule to avoid taking the Red Line on a game day or arrived late to school because the Chicago Transit Authority driver of the Addison bus pulled over to run in and grab a pizza (tavern style, not deep dish) on his route.

People love to say they’re from Chicago when they’re actually from a suburb. Northbrook, Elk Grove, Naperville — I’ve even had someone from Gurnee, which is almost an hour away without traffic, claim to be a Chicagoan. Besides just being incorrect, there’s no reason for it. 

Put yourself in my shoes: If you told me you were from example, Illinois, and I said I was from there too, wouldn’t you be disappointed if upon clarification I admitted I was really from somewhere thirty minutes away? We might enjoy some of the same things, but I’m sure there are small things about your town you were excited to talk about and bond over that only someone from the actual town would know. 

For us, that’s why you don’t order a chocolate shake at the Wiener Circle, how to find your way around Lower Wacker or where the best secret beach in Chicago is (I’m not telling!). Personally, I like to ask fellow Chicagoans where they were the moment they found out the Rainforest Cafe on Ohio Street was closing or the Rock n’ Roll McDonald’s was being remodeled.

I’m not trying to sound rude, I promise. I understand why people do it: Most people, especially when traveling outside of the Midwest, don’t know every single small town outside of Chicago. But I don’t think it’s a big ask for people to put the words “a suburb of” or even just “near” before the name. At this point I should ask for zip codes, and if they don’t respond “six, zero, six,” I’ll offer them a shot of Malort.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the center of the Loop or on the outskirts near Jefferson Park, there are many universal Chicago experiences that bind us together. 

Being in the city limits gives you access to Chicago’s public schools, which are an adventure all of their own with frequent teacher strikes and scandals. We suffer through nightmarish traffic at all hours of the day and know to never get on a train car that’s empty during rush hour (There’s a reason it’s empty). We roll our eyes at our politics that are entirely built on corruption, politely ignore the weirdos on the El and grumble about why we pay taxes if our roads are going to be filled with potholes anyway. 

Suburbanites can enjoy all of those things in their own towns, of course. And I’m sure some of them do. The difference is minuscule to most yet massive some. It’s like being in an exclusive club: If you’re in, you’re in, if you’re not, you’re not. Many people don’t even want to be in the club due to high crime, corruption and overall craziness, but to be honest, that’s part of the appeal.

Famed poet and brief citizen of Chicago Carl Sandburg once wrote, “Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about Hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years.” Despite my affection for the city, Sandburg isn’t entirely wrong in comparing it to Hell. 

And I love to say I’ve lived in Hell. Not many people can survive that, and those who have have special connection with each other. From two CTA bus drivers stopping the buses to exchange roses with each other to an elderly woman shooing a man off the train for making lewd remarks at me, Chicagoans are birds of a feather, and we definitely stick together.

We’re the ones who changed the course of an entire river for our personal convenience, waited 108 years for the Cubs to win the World Series and saw the entire city burning down as an opportunity to rebuild again. Today we merch (vouch, for non-Chicagoans) for each other, navigate the secret underground Pedway system and lace up our gym shoes before leaving one of 77 unique neighborhoods so we can be a part of this club of people who can say they’ve lived in Hell and cherished every second of it. So can you blame me for being annoyed with people who say they’ve been down here with me when really they’ve been hanging out in Purgatory?

This story was written by Nora McCaughey. She can be reached at eleanor.mccaughey@marquette.edu