I detest crowds, loud drunkards, gaggles of has-been frat boys, and did I mention crowds? It’s probably obvious, then, why St. Patrick’s at my house has always been celebrated with a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, and nothing more. But my brother was in town with twelve of his closest friends — his financial management club, here for a conference — and they were hell-bent on having a good time. I, as the older sister who was “a Chicagan” (I had to explain that unlike Fresno natives, who drop the “o,” people in Chicago called themselves “Chicagoans”) knew I was going to have to step up to the plate.
Carson, being the adorably stoic little brother he is, came up to Boystown to visit me Saturday morning while his friends were asleep from their ridiculously late Friday night (and tempered this tender, self-sacrificial gesture by farting so obnoxiously in my apartment that we had to vacate the premises). I fixed his hangover with a redeye from Intelligentsia, and then some music browsing at Reckless Records. I’d anticipated taking him to breakfast, and had my mouth all set for some pancakes, but he informed me that he was dying to try this “Italian beef thing” that my dad had talked so much about after his last visit. I cringed inside. That meant we were going to have to go downtown. On St. Patrick’s.“Okay, let’s go to Portillo’s.”
We couldn’t even get on the first bus that stopped. I felt my stomach tighten. Crowds and I are not friends. When we finally got downtown, I could not believe the number of people, all in green, flooding the sidewalks. It felt like Manhattan at rush hour. And Portillo’s was, of course, completely packed. A cop at the door was waving people in one at a time. Carson looked at me.
“This really isn’t your thing, is it?”
Perceptive, that one.
Portillo’s, being the kitschy place it is, was advertising green beer. Carson asked if I wanted one. I still wanted pancakes. I tried not to make a face.
“I’ll get one with you if you want one.”
“Do you want one?”“It’s Miller Lite dyed green, Carson. It’s nasty.” Pause. “I’ll buy you one if you really want it.”
He ended up buying us both one after we’d elbowed our way through the line and ordered our sandwiches. It was indeed as nasty as I thought it was going to be (made no better by someone spilling theirs down my back). But the food came, Carson wolfed his and half of mine down in a matter of minutes, muttering all the while about how Fresno needed to learn what Italian beef was.
As we fought our way back to Tribune Tower, where we met his friends, we stopped to look at the Chicago river. It had been dyed green that morning, and to my surprise was still quite neon. The sun was out, I was hanging with my little bro, the river looked like something from Dr. Seuss. I caught myself smiling despite the crowds and the silliness of it all.
I’d promised Carson and his friends a tour of the Tower, since they had nothing else better to do (and being from California, were scared to death of taking the bus anywhere). I was expecting it to bore them, but they actually got quite a kick out of it. They stood for a long time in front of the old newspaper printing plates, examining headlines about “Reds” murdering “thousands of peasants in village” and men walking on the moon. I showed them the Pulitzers, the ed board conference room, the radio station. And then, at the end of the tour, at about 4:30 on St. Paddy’s, I told them to follow me to the Billy Goat.
“Is that the bar that’s under the overpass?” one of them exclaimed excitedly. We set the standards high here.
I bought a round of cheap beer for everyone, and they gorged themselves on greasy burgers. I pointed out headlines of yellowing papers and explained that this used to be where the Sun-Times journalists and Tribune journalists came to argue with each other.“Thank you so much for bringing us here!” said one of the girls. “I love getting to go where the locals go.” (Note to self: How do you annoy your little brother from 2,000 miles away? You treat his friends like royalty so they won’t let him forget how awesome you are.)
In a weird way, the whole crazy experience made me feel like Chicago is finally becoming my home. My crazy-ass town: Let me show you it.
Carson headed back to his hotel to pack after the Billy Goat, but he walked me to the bus stop first. I didn’t tell him, but I’d drink ten nasty green Miller Lites in a heartbeat to make those memories all over again.