by Scott Simon
My wife, Barb, who grew up in central Illinois farm country, used to say that my Chicago friends and I were afflicted with the same disease: “You guys think that Chicago’s the only place to live.”
At the time, her diagnosis was spot on.
Chicago can spoil you, and until you take the antidote of living elsewhere, love for Chicago is a tough illness to shake.
Obviously I’m not completely cured, despite having lived away from the Windy City for more than 25 years. When I spotted Scott Simon’s book, “Windy City,” at a bookstore, I didn’t think twice before plopping down $24.95.
The novel starts with the city’s long-serving mayor found dead at his desk, his face in a prosciutto and artichoke pizza. Finding the killer or killers is part of the unraveling, but to be honest, solving the crime is really only background music. A whodunit this ain’t.
The plot? Chicago politics. In the raw.
The characters? Chicago’s aldermen. In all their humanity, all their sins, all their antics, all their shenanigans, all their deals, all their in-fighting, all their “character.” How they work with and around one another in complex relationships that can’t be described as all bad– but they aren’t all good, either.
What keeps you turning the pages, ostensibly, is the storyline about who will become the next mayor, since the City Council must elect a replacement until the next general election.
One aldermen recommends that another vote for a certain candidate because she “knows how to express her appreciation,” wink wink.
But Simon, the host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” has put together a package that combines accurate descriptions of Chicago’s ethnic variety — ward by ward — with an inside-baseball view of Chicago’s City Council and its city government operations. He captures life as every Chicagoan will tell you is exactly the way it is.
It’s the speeches at the Museum of Lithuanian Civilization, the Baptist church and the wedding reception in a Chinese neighborhood, the flashbacks to how the now-dead mayor forced Chicago to live up to its motto as “The City That Works,” and insight into machine politics — aldermanic votes are dependent not upon who is best for the job but who will agree to put a police station in their neighborhood or vote for a tax enhancement zone in their ward. You get to keep you seat on the council if you do two things: fill the potholes and clear the snow off the streets.
“Windy City” was a fun read for me because I was able to identify with so many of the locales that Simon takes his readers to and with the ethnic mix that has such an impact on politics in Chicago.
Others will love the circus-like atmosphere in the City Council chambers that Simon portrays perfectly, almost historically!
There’s really great writing, too. Simon doesn’t just say an alderman is “in bed with” one of the city’s unions, he “shares bedbugs” with it. When a City Hall worker commits suicide from a high-rise apartment, the police officer involved admits his investigation hasn’t produce any reason. He tells an alderman, “All we know for sure now, sir, is that he wasn’t Peter Pan.”
The amazing thing about “Windy City” is that Simon doesn’t involve the cardinal-archbishop of Chicago in the story — not in any way. In this day and age, an author deserves a plenary indulgence for resisting the urge to take a cheap shot or to pile on the hierarchy and the church.
The most religious action in the whole story comes just before Chicago’s 50 aldermen are to vote on the mayoral replacement. Because the Rev. Jesse Jackson is unavailable, an alderman who is also a rabbi is asked to do the invocation for the council session. And there’s a bit of good old Chicago pride that seeps through, as you’ll see in this excerpt:
“May God give us wisdom today. And if we don’t choose the best or the brainiest candidate, please let us at least find a good man or woman who loves this city and will grow wise in the job.”
Now for the worst part of “Windy City” — the jacket design. A weather vane with a donkey, an elephant and an American flag, plus convention-type boater hats. Please. Chicago politics isn’t akin to a party convention. And there’s no Republican anything in Chicago, not even a weather vane. Sure, you could vote Republican in a city election — but why waste your vote? — bz