THE CHORUS

I spend a lot of my life — maybe even most of my life these days — in hotels. And it can be a grim and dispiriting feeling, waking up, at first unsure of where you are, what language they’re speaking outside. The room looks much the same as other rooms. TV. Coffee maker on the desk. Complimentary fruit basket rotting on the table. The familiar suitcase.

All too often, particularly in America, I’ll walk to the window and draw back the curtains, looking to remind myself where I might be-and it doesn’t help at all. The featureless, anonymous skyline that greets me is much the same as the previous city’s and the city before that.

This is not a problem in Chicago.

You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad shouldered motherfuckin’ city. A metropolis, completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big hearted but cold blooded machine with millions of moving parts — a beast that will, if disrespected or not taken seriously, roll over you without remorse.

It is, also, as I like to point out frequently, one of America’s last great NO BULLSHIT zones. Pomposity, pretentiousness, putting on airs of any kind, douchery and lack of a sense of humor will not get you far in Chicago. It is a trait shared with Glasgow — another city I love with a similar working class ethos and history.

But those looking for a “Chicago Show” on this week’s PARTS UNKNOWN will likely be disappointed. There are no Italian beef scenes, no hot dogs, no Chicago blues, and there sure as shit ain’t no deep dish pizza. We’ve done all those things — on those other shows. And we might well do them again someday.

I like Chicago. So, any excuse to come back, for me, is a good one. It’s not a “fair” show, it’s not comprehensive, it’s not the “best” of the city, or what you need to know or any of those things. If you’re gonna cry that I “missed” an iconic feature of Chicago life — or that there are better Italian restaurants than Topo Gigio, then you missed the point and can move right on over to Travel Channel where somebody is pretending to like deep dish pizza right now.

Painting by Bruce Cameron Elliot / Source: brucecameronelliott.com

This is a show that grew out of my interest and affection for the Ale House in Chicago’s Old Town, and its proprietor, Bruce Cameron Elliot. 
Ever since reading on the Twitter feed of the late great Roger Ebert that he read Bruce’s blog “ Geriatric Genius” every day, I have followed it faithfully. In fact, I went back years, tracking previous entries. It is in total, a breathtaking work, encompassing the daily lives (and deaths) and misadventures of the Ale House clientele — many of whom, I think it is fair to say, are heavy drinkers. Though cranky, occasionally pugilistic, opinionated, politically incorrect, sexually crude, and an awful speller, Bruce has, without judgement, chronicled the trajectories of a spellbinding array of characters. Whole lives pass, his characters rise and fall — and literally fall apart — as with one character, “Ruben 9 Toes”, who then went on to become “Ruben 8 Toes” then “4 Toes” before dying last year. Bruce’s closest associate, Street Jimmy is a crackhead who’s lived on the streets of Chicago ( no small feat) for over a decade — and his Greek chorus of bar regulars offer a perspective on Chicago that I thought deserved highlighting.

We visit with hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco and his extraordinary family, with chef Stephanie Izard, legendary producer Steve Albini and others — but the beating heart of this show is the Ale House and its resident artist (Bruce’s paintings of his customers, living and dead — as well as his portraits of politicians of both parties often depicted being penetrated inappropriately are world famous).

Paintings by Bruce Cameron Elliot / Source: brucecameronelliott.com

I urge you to visit his blog. And to go back and start a few years back.

There is something about the Ale House — its willingness to accept all who stagger in its doors (though there is, famously a NO SHOT list), it’s morbid sense of humor, it’s never ending flow of opinions, well formed and not, its willingness to scrap — that serves for me, as a happy metaphor for a city I love.


Parts Unknown: Chicago
Airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CNN

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