Chicago Journal

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount Pictures)

I can’t be in Chicago — certainly in the heart of it — and not think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I guess that movie stamped me. It caught me at the right time (1986). Ferris is, among other things, a hymn to Chicago.

I mention this to Riccardo Muti, the famed, and Italian, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Inno?” he says to an aide, confirming the meaning of the word “hymn.” Muti has not seen the film. He should.

I should have said “movie.” In a column, George Will declared Ferris Bueller the greatest movie of all time — “movie” as distinct from “film,” for a film can be arty.

As I remember — and I don’t think I’ve seen this movie since 1986 — Ferris gets arty and “deep” at the end. Goes off the deep end, so to speak. This mars the movie, in my judgment, but it’s still great.

And, hey, Mia Sara!

Whenever I have a wonderful, full day around town — whether I’m skipping school or not — I think of it as a “Ferris Bueller day.” And it could be any town, not just Chicago. But Chicago heightens the feeling, of course.

I have a Ferris Bueller day, here in Chicago — including a long walk by the lake, a luxurious breakfast with Muti, and, much later, a gathering with old friends. Mia Sara is missing, but when isn’t she?

‐As I walk under the “L,” a phrase comes to mind: “City of the Big Shoulders.” It’s a cliché, but wouldn’t you like the immortality of having come up with a cliché, especially a true one? Good for Sandburg.

And, incidentally, I prefer to write “El,” but it seems that “L,” complete with quotation marks, is what people do.

‐“Chicago,” the song, runs through my mind, as it must. I’m not sure what “toddling” means: “that toddlin’ town.” Tippling, I understand. This is a tippling town, like all towns (and villages and hamlets). But toddling? As in two-year-olds? Surely not …

‐It’s a pleasure to pay $2.50 for a Coke in a restaurant. In New York, it’s $4.50 — at least at my diner near Carnegie Hall. A few years ago, I vowed never to pay it, ever again. Sometimes I slip …

‐I see a name on a courthouse: “Everett McKinley Dirksen.” I never knew his middle name was McKinley! Dirksen, you remember, was a longtime Illinois Republican, a leader of his party in the Senate.

I check out the Wikipedia entry for him. He was born in January ’96, ten months before McKinley was elected president. Hmmm. McKinley was finishing his term as governor of Ohio when Dirksen was born. His parents were German immigrants, and his father was a Republican. Another son in the family was called Benjamin Harrison.

Ev Dirksen was a Republican leader in the Senate, and so was his son-in-law: Howard Baker, the Tennessee senator. A few years after Joy Dirksen Baker died, Senator Baker married a fellow senator, Nancy Landon Kassebaum — the daughter of Alf Landon, who was the Republican nominee for president in 1936.

All clear?

‐In a city, you can walk downtown; or you can walk along a river. Walking downtown, you can see more, probably, but you’re stopped all the time by traffic lights, and other pedestrians. This can be a pain, costing you momentum. Walking along a river, you can keep going, unimpeded — but you may have to walk out of town, and back again.

In Chicago, you can walk along a river and downtown. The heart of downtown. The river is below, and the town is above. Kind of a miracle.

‐And Chicago is a miracle, architecturally. I know this a cliché — another one — but it’s true. Perfectly true.

‐There is a scar in Chicago — more like an open wound, to my eyes. TRUMP, in huge letters, on a building. You can see it for miles. It’s in your face. I find it sinister, like the name of a Bond villain. This syllable has become incredibly ugly to me, even threatening. I wish it weren’t so. It never was before — I thought of Trump as kind of an amusing vulgarity. But this year is different.

Moreover, wouldn’t you be embarrassed to have your name so big on a building, altering the landscape, or cityscape? Forcing all eyes upon it? As though you were some god to be bowed down to? And this in a national city, a city that belongs to all of us, really.

The TRUMP in Chicago is a mustache on the Mona Lisa. A yuuge, super-bushy mustache.

I’m trying to imagine some big NORD on a building (without the “strom’s”). I would order it removed toot sweet.

Anyway, to be continued (of course) …

‐On Michigan Avenue, there is a vibraphonist. A young Indian-American man. Two mallets in each hand, he is playing an arrangement, probably his own, of “Happy Together,” the Turtles’ hit from 1967. I stand and listen to him for a long while — at least two minutes. Must be a record for me. The player is virtuosic, inventive, and musical. A rewarding interlude.

‐Do you find it amazing when a public clock works? I do. Long have. I expect them not to work. And when one does — it’s like, Whoa.

‐Among the homeless — or street people, or, as we said in a more straightforward, less euphemistic age, beggars — there is a certain camaraderie. Some of the men are like co-workers, greeting one another throughout the day. Catching up on the latest. Exchanging words of encouragement. They’re at work, in a sense. They’re going about their routine.

They are also, it appears to me, trapped. Many of us know that feeling of being trapped. It befalls any number of people, whether it’s visible or not.

‐On one street, there is a long, long line. I think some pop star must be signing CDs or something. Or maybe someone’s giving away weed? Is this Colorado? I want to emphasize, this line is huge, stretching down the block. It’s for Just Salad, an eatery.


‐I’m talking to a member of the writing class. (Not in line for Just Salad.) He mentions “those Nazis in DuPage County.” I ask, “Is that where Skokie is?” thinking of the infamous march that took place in the ’70s. No, Skokie turns out to be in Cook County. The man has referred to Republicans — people like me.

We are, of course, as far from the National Socialists as you can get: believing in limited government, personal freedom, the rule of law, property rights, free markets, separation of powers, decentralization of power, republicanism, and all the rest of it.

Ever since I became a classical liberal, or Reagan conservative, in my late teens, I have been called a Nazi — it comes with the territory. But it never ceases to rankle, and incense, does it? We must be forgiving. Some people are dumb as rocks. Some people are ignorant, innocently. Some people are ignorant, willfully. Others are of course malicious.

Anyway, an old, sad, infuriating story …

‐At the Art Institute, I’m breezing by paintings, as always. I think, “These guys took so much care with these paintings. They thought about them, and worked on them, and perfected them, for a long, long time. And here I am, breezing by. I show no respect.”

I think of all the time it takes me to write a book. Or an article. Or a blogpost. Or a tweet. Oh, well …

‐I don’t think I have ever before encountered George Romney — English painter, 1734 to 1802. Same name as the late governor of my home state. The father of Mitt. Where has he been? (The painter, that is.)

‐I see a painting by Vicente López y Portaña — of the Duke of Sotomayor. Sotomayor! I wonder whether he was wise, the duke …

‐I’m sobered a little by a word I see. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it in any context but genocide. I’m looking at a sculpture by Charles Cordier (1827-1905): the Bust of Saïd Abdullah of the Darfour People. Something about that different spelling, with the “o,” makes it all the more poignant, for some reason.

‐The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is rehearsing Falstaff — Verdi’s opera, which they will present in concert (as opposed to staging the opera, with costumes and the whole nine yards). Muti is at the helm. In the seats is someone equally big in this town: Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls.

He is a great opera fan, and he has fans in the orchestra, and among the singers: They pose for photos with him. He is very gracious.

I speak with him for a minute about basketball — about the greatness of the sport. How did he find it, by the way? (He grew up in Greater Barcelona.) “My parents played,” he says. Yes, including his mother.

To speak with Pau Gasol is refreshing, for he seems a gent.

Muti remarks that another important Chicagoan — Mayor Rahm Emanuel — has never been to a CSO concert. “Tell him to come,” he calls out to the CSO’s board chairman, sitting in the seats. “Tell him to come before Maestro Muti goes to the cemetery.” Members of the orchestra let out a kind of protest. Muti amends his statement: “goes to the cemetery to visit.”

‐Would you like a language note? A note about language and politics? We always called Pablo Casals Pablo Casals. Then it became cool to call him “Pau Casals” — in deference to his Catalan origins.

Sometimes I hate cool. I really do.

‐A note about Rahm — a further one: He was a ballet dancer. He’s more of an artist than practically anyone else in politics. Interesting that he doesn’t care for music, if he doesn’t.

Falstaff is performed at 8, and lets out at 11, something like that. I must say, to leave Orchestra Hall and walk out onto Michigan Avenue is glamorous. Truly glamorous. The Art Institute is beautiful, all lit up. The tall buildings toward the north shine invitingly, even excitingly. Romantically.

I know that Chicago has problems: bad, bad, problems. And I say this as someone who grew up in the orbit of Detroit. But it can also be really wonderful. Ferris Bueller-esque.


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