How wet is our yard? We have ducks. This happy couple hang out after a few puddles form — at least I assume it's the same couple. I can't believe that whenever it rains a pair of ducks happen by. I always pause to admire them, and for some reason, Saturday, seeing ducks reminded me of this column, which really has nothing to do with ducks other than the cabbie's enigmatic phrase, which I used as a headline.
It's from four years ago, when my book about Chicago came out, the New York Times panned it, along with two other books and the city itself. It was a shocking thing — I took it as cosmic payback for my caring what the Times or anybody else thinks — and I wrote a column about it. That helped give me strength to endure later seeing the Tribune take the author of the slur out to lunch to hold her hand and coo sympathetically to the hurt she suffered because proud Chicagoans objected to her deluded calumny. I myself couldn't face her — when WTTW phoned, and asked me to appear on "Chicago Tonight" with her, I replied, "I'm not going to try to out-hiss that snake." It was the right call.
At 5 p.m. I lowered the venetian blinds, put on my sport coat and then my raincoat and stood in the office, mustering the strength to leave.
The phone rang—my father.
"Mom told me," he said. "It's hard to believe. Are you sure? They don't do that sort of thing."
"Well . . . they made an exception for me," I said, with a rueful laugh.
"Maybe you should write a letter to the editor," he suggested.
"I'm not going to do that, dad." We talked some more; I said I had to get going promised a friend I'd go to his cocktail party, to add my single sequin's worth of luster.
"But I'm really glad you called," I said. "That means a lot to me. Love you."
I took the elevator down to the street.
"A taxi, young man?" Marvin, the always-friendly doorman called out as I pushed through the revolving door.
Normally, I would walk—between the river and Wacker Drive, past Marina Towers, turning down State Street. I like to walk. Never tire of being downtown, of seeing the buildings, the people, the trains. It's beautiful, and a joy just to be there. But the phone call meant I was running a little late and, to be honest, I was so heartsick, I didn't feel like walking. I didn't feel like anything.
"Yeah Marvin, a cab, thanks," I said. He blew his whistle, a boxy maroon Royal Three CCC cab rolled up."17 East Monroe," I said, getting in. "The Palmer House."
"How is your day?" the driver asked.
"Lousy," I said. "But if I told you why my day is lousy, you'd laugh at me. So tell me, how are you?" His day wasn't doing too well either. The chip from his cellphone? He had removed it, folded the tiny chip into a receipt, like so— he showed me the receipt—and put it in a padded envelope. But somehow the chip had fallen out and was lost in the cab.
"It held many special pictures," he said—of his fiancée, for instance. I offered suggestions for finding the errant chip, and asked him to pass the padded envelope back to me.
"Sometimes a second set of eyes helps," I said, peering inside, feeling around. I scanned the carpet in the back, scrutinizing every speck. He seemed discouraged.
"Is this your cab?" I asked. He said it is. "Then look for it in the morning," I said. "It has to be here somewhere." He was worried it had fallen into the gearshift.
"It's hard to lose something," I commiserated. "I bet it'll show up."
We crossed the river and were in the Loop now. What, he asked, about my day?
My day, my day. Was I really going to tell the cabdriver about my day? Why not?
"Well I'm a newspaper columnist, a writer," I said. "I learned that on Sunday, the New York Times is going to slam my book about Chicago. A complete pan. On the cover of the Book Review. I not only embarrassed myself, but drew contempt upon the city."
The cabbie wasn't having any of it.
"No, no, no!" he cried. "New York cannot review Chicago!" He glanced back at me. "You're upset? C'mon now. Street cred. That's what they just gave you. Street cred."
He was jubilant. "Street cred?" I smiled. Nobody ever suggested I had "street cred" before. I asked him his name: Christian, from Nigeria, driving a cab 10 years.
"I'm an American citizen now. I'm a Chicagoan," he said. "I love it. I've been to New York, and you know what? They put garbage in their streets. Chicago is one of the best cities that have ever been. No no no no. It's a privilege to be in Chicago. No please sir." He chortled. He handed back a receipt.
"Please write down the name of the book—I want to read it."
"Cost you 15 dollars and 58 cents on Amazon," I muttered, scribbling. "My handwriting isn't the best," I added, handing it back, reading aloud what I had written: "You Were Never in Chicago—Neil Steinberg."
"One reason is, they feel embarrassed. You tell your wife..." —I had told him I was reluctant to tell her about the review—"...she will laugh at you. She will laugh and say, 'What does that matter?' They are unhappy. Unhappy people, they try to hurt other people. New York and Chicago are completely different. You need to link the ducks."
I'm not sure what he meant by that last part, or if I heard it right through his accent. But I liked the sound, and took it to mean, "You need to make sense of a crazy world."
"And you're upset?" he laughed again. "Are you serious? Your wife is going to have a ball! That's the way that I feel." We pulled up to the Palmer House. He was laughing and to my vast surprise, I was too, shaking my head, the stone on my heart miraculously lifted.
I tipped him very well, and told him I thought that God had sent his cab to me.
"Keep your head up—you're a Chicagoan!" he called after me as I walked into the intricate glittering splendor of the Palmer House. He's right: You need to link the ducks.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 21, 2013