Sunday, March 26, 2017

"You need to link the ducks"

      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. A shocking thing — I took it as cosmic payback for my caring what the Times or anybody else thinks, and 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 fiancĂ©e, 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 cab driver 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


  1. I was just remembering how much I enjoyed the book. Think it was the first of yours I read, and I later read others because of how much I liked it.

    Just reread Zorns review. As Ive come to know you and your writing, I see how right he was- particularly the sentence about " curiosity, insight" etc Here is an excerpt:

    "Steinberg writes for the Sun-Times, lives in the suburbs and loves opera and cigars. I write for Tribune, live in the city and have no use for opera or cigars.
    But we’re friends, in part because we also have several things in common: We’re both politically liberal, we’re both sons of retired physicists and we both think Neil Steinberg is brilliant.
    I’ll accede instantly to most of the criticisms leveled at him — he’s a difficult character, a prickly, blunt cauldron of insecurity and arrogance who has said and done things he shouldn’t have.
    These flaws and more are on display in “You Were Never in Chicago,” a memoir interwoven with local history just published by the University of Chicago Press. But so is his curiosity, insight, amusing self-awareness and enormous talent.
    It’s good soup."

  2. thats the reason i like your work Neil. i imagine you to be :a difficult character, a prickly, blunt cauldron of insecurity and arrogance. i think i would enjoy playing poker with you .

    1. Especially because I've played about three times.

    2. "...we both think Neil Steinberg is brilliant." Wow!

      About Neil's 'heart on his sleeve' column, most writers would, one thinks, accept the occasional bad review as part of the business and be reluctant to admit publicly that the arrow has hit home. But one of the things that makes Neil readable is what Virginia Woolf put her finger on in regard to one of his famous predecessors.

      "What Mr. Beerbohm gave was, of course, himself. This presence, which has haunted the essay fitfully from the time of Montaigne, had been in exile since the death of Charles Lamb. Matthew Arnold was never to his readers Matt, nor Walter Pater affectionately abbreviated in a thousand homes to Wat. They gave us much but that they did not give. Thus, some time in the nineties, it must have surprised readers to find themselves familiarly addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves....He was himself, simply and directly, and himself he has remained....He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man."


    3. Eric's assessment is a fair one. Though I'm not sure about the "think I'm brilliant" charge -- to me, I enjoy what I do. Patrick O'Brian is brilliant. David Foster Wallace is brilliant. Gene Weingarten is brilliant. I'm a smarter-than-most man pushing himself to the utmost of his better-than-average abilities and having fun -- it's the having fun aspect I think throws people, and is mistaken for self-love.

  3. I have that book as well. It is a very good read. To heck with snobbish NYorkers and the Times, except for when they upset Trump.

  4. New York seems to think that Chicago and the rest of America has this inferiority complex about New York, whereas our real attitude is "meh."

  5. I really enjoyed reading, "You Were Never in Chicago." I thought you really captured the spirit of Chicago well. At first I was skeptical because you're not from Chicago, but I saw you promote the book on Windy City Live and it sounded really good, plus I loved to read any books about Chicago. I think sometimes all it takes is one nice (sane) person to give us the right perspective again. John Fountain of the Chicago Tribune wrote a good article called, "Let Writing Critics Lift You Up, Not Take You Down." I always keep that by my desk to look at when I'm discouraged.

    Linda B

  6. I loved the book. I moved here 5 years ago from a small town in Minnesota and am fascinated by the city and all of its history and the even more the stories you told. Now where can I find one of those old fashioned Russian baths?

    1. The Division Street Russian Bath reopened as Red Square. All the 1930s boxing club charm was lost, but the actual schvitz itself is unchanged, with a quite good restaurant and an improved health club like vibe that some might prefer.

  7. Link the ducks= get your ducks in a row? I love what he said about New York, so true.

  8. Wanted to move to New York while in college, and just like gambling ( mostly poker and ponies) that urge out of my system pretty fast.

    Born in Chicago, raised mostly in the northern suburbs, lived in both for a total of 36 years, then married a fifth-generation Ohio girl and moved to her hometown 25 years ago. I grew up a few miles west of Northwestern and I've ended up a few miles north of Berea. You grew up in Berea and ended up at Northwestern. So the book resonated with me as soon as I received it, as a gift from friends in Michigan, who know I love reading about Chicago, both past and present. I've been reading and collecting books about my hometown since discovering James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan Trilogy" at 13, and while his work is still king of the list and top of the heap, yours certainly follows close behind. I still enjoy what you do, and even if you don't consider it brilliant, many do. Count me among them.

  9. I love that book! If a New York critic didn't like it, it's because she doesn't understand Chicago.


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