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Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

I moved to Chicago years ago, and in many ways it became more a home to me than Buffalo ever was. Now, since I’m attempting another inter-city move in a month, here is a list of things I noticed upon moving from Buffalo to Chicago that I never quite adjusted to:

Pizza and Wings don’t go Together
It’s not fair to expect every city on the planet to weave chicken wings into the culture like Buffalo has, but growing up in Buffalo, it does seem fair to expect wings to be the tasty accompaniment to a handful of particular dishes. Namely, pizza. In Buffalo, it’s ubiquitous to pick up the phone, speed-dial your favorite pizzeria, and say you want a large pepperoni and a double hot wings. They know the request because you’re a regular customer and they’ve heard slight variations on the same order a million times in the past. We take the combination for granted so much that wherever we go, we expect our pizza with a side of wings and let our hosts know what terrible people they are if they forget the wings. When I arrived in Chicago and made friends who ordered pizza, though, it was a short flight to my realization that people there didn’t feel like the extra grease with chicken meat on the side was an essential side dish. Hell, even that’s overstating their importance – Chicagoans went about their pizza business like the pizza/wings combination didn’t exist. Fortunately, Chicago is so good at pizza that you won’t care after the initial shock wears off.

The Street Grid Makes Sense
Buffalo loves to advertise its status as America’s Best-Planned City. No less an authority than Frederick Law Olmsted said Buffalo was the best-planned city in the world, and Buffalo was planned in a radial pattern, which is extremely rare in the United States. I guess it would make sense that Olmsted and other old-school architects would think that, though; they didn’t live long enough to witness abominations like the HSBC Tower, Main Place Mall, the Buffalo Convention Center, and all those other buildings which wipe out the meticulously planned radial design. The Convention Center and Main Place Mall in particular are notorious for choking off parts of downtown which would otherwise be reached very easily from Buffalo City Hall if they weren’t sitting in the way. Compounding the architectural mistakes is a legion of one-way streets going in so many different directions that you would think the city had a deal with an oil company which would cause motorists to keep getting lost and having to buy more gas. Chicago’s layout only seemed confusing at first. Once someone explained the directional and numbering scheme to me, though, I never got truly lost again. Chicago’s blocks are blocks, and its streets mainly stick to one direction. True, some of them – like Clark Street – curve a little after awhile and slant, but generally, even with all the one-way streets – I guess some things are constant between cities – it was refreshingly easy to find my way around.

The directional system is very easy: Madison Street is the official north/south marker, while State Street marks east and west. The corner of Madison and State places you at 0/0 numerically, and numbers increase like normal in every direction. The further away from Madison and State you get, the higher the address number. Even-numbered addresses are on buildings on the north and west sides of their streets; and by a rigorous and time-consuming process of elimination, you’ve maybe concluded that south and east street sides have the odd addresses. One thing I find a little dumbfounding, though, is that State Street is the barrier between east and west. State Street gets cut off around Lincoln Park, and the east side ceases to exist.

The People Think Chicago has the Monopoly on the Word “Pop”
We get it: Using “pop” as our word for soda is a regional thing. We’re told that from birth. Chicago apparently missed the memo. If you’re from out of town, every use of “pop” as a way of referring to soda is accompanied by a wink, a smile, and the occasional elbow nudge as the Chicagoan who just used it explains to his guests that “pop” is the word they use for soda in Chicago. They seem to think they’re letting you in on the secret formula for Coca-Cola when they say it. Well, the thing about “pop” is that the region that uses it as a term for soda is fucking massive. In fact, according to The Huffington Post, a survey anyone can fill out on a site called popvssoda.com, and Discover Magazine among many other sources, “pop” is absolutely dominant along the entire northern coastline from the Pacific coast – including Alaska – to western New York, except for a small spot in Wisconsin along the Lake Michigan coast. It changes to “soda” around Rochester, New York. The point where “pop” stops being used going south varies, but it drifts as far down as Oklahoma and changes to “coke” in the deep south. “Soda” actually seems to be the minority word for soda. Back to point, though; there’s no need for Chicagoans to cling to their use of “pop” like it’s some special identifying mark or secret handshake because everybody fucking knows what it is.

Chicago is a Hate Group for Ketchup
When you move to Chicago – or, hell, even if you’re just passing through it – you’ll be forced to try one of those seven-topping hot dogs that are so popular there, possibly at gunpoint. Your first thought upon glancing the Chicago-style hot dog for the first time will probably be along the lines of “how the hell do I eat this thing?” You’re not going to shove the whole thing into your mouth to bite down, since there’s too much between the onions, relish, peppers, pickle, celery salt, mustard, and tomatoes. (And the dog itself is, of course, made of beef; not just beef, but Vienna beef, and placed on a poppy seed bun, because any other beef on any other bun will toss the universe out of whack.) Your second thought may be of ketchup, but Chicagoans will recoil in horror at that thought. Hatred of ketchup is something known to unite Cubs fans and White Sox fans. The city tries to bully people about this; some hot dog places don’t even have ketchup available. Others just have assholes at the service counter who insult you to your face for putting ketchup on hot dogs.

Ketchup is treated much the same way you would treat asbestos. The fact that these people drown their french fries in ketchup instead of eating them with salt and vinegar and that mustard is a legal form of torture never seems to bother them. Meanwhile, Buffalo introduced a type of dog called the Texas Red Hot to the planet. Unlike the dicks who vend in Chicago, no one in Buffalo cares what goes on your Texas Red Hot, and long as you’re getting the dogs themselves at a place that makes them halfway decently. There are many of them; Louie’s has its fans, but Ted’s is the consensus place to find a good hot dog in Buffalo.

The Football Fans are Idiots
You would expect to find a sizable number of mouth-breathers among a fanbase which made Mike Ditka, the NFL’s response to Donald Trump, into their patron saint. That’s a good summary of Bears fans. These are fans who bitch if their team committed to something other than outmoded run-first football and growl a lot about “Bear weather,” a make-believe home field advantage offered by Soldier Field’s location alongside Lake Michigan and the blustery winds swirling in. On one hand, you can’t blame Bears fans for looking at the team’s incredible successes on the ground: An amazing nine titles, including a Super Bowl victory in the 1985 season, and a running back roll call of transcendents like Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Gale Sayers, and the immortal Walter Payton as well as locally memorable runners like Neal Anderson, Matt Forte, Beattie Feathers, and Rick Casares. On the other hand, Bears fans all still seem to believe this style amounts to some insurmountable advantage. They’ll talk up Bear weather as if no other team in the NFL plays in the cold. I would remind fans that it gets pretty damn cold in Buffalo too, and Bears fans, bless their tiny dino brains, tried to argue with me about it. They’ll insist you can’t pass in a Chicago winter, even though a certain outdoor team which plays in even worse weather than Chicago has spent the past two decades showing the Bears differently. Yeah, three of those FOUR Super Bowls the Green Bay Packers have reeled in were all led by Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and that fourth title was guided by another quarterback who plays with the kind of form that leads quarterbacks to the Hall.

And about those titles: That one I mentioned from 1985 happens to be the most recent of them, and fans dwell on it like it’s the only thing that matters. Granted, from everything I’ve gathered about that 1985 team, they were quite memorable, but no other fanbase lives in its past like this. Even the Bills fans old enough to still sing shoulda coulda wouldas about those four Super Bowls set the glory years aside once the current season starts. Deadspin’s Why Your Team Sucks football previews listed Chicago’s sports loyalties a few years ago and placed the 1985 Bears over the current Bears. It was accurate.

Summer is the Real Bad Season
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Chicagoans honk on mightily about the pleasures of summer, but if Chicagoans knew the first thing about summer, they would also be able to think of at least 3268 places to spend it, and that’s just on the same latitude. The thing about living in Buffalo is that we have the lake effect. Lake Erie might bury us on a regular basis, but come the summer, it becomes an air conditioner which prevents the heat and humidity from becoming unbearable and keeping the city relatively dry, but giving us enough rain for all kinds of gardens to sprout. The summer temperature average in Buffalo is in the low 80’s, and we get an average of three days a year where the temperature hits 90. The city just broke a streak of below-90 days in the last month which was two years long. Buffalo has never had a 100 degree day. Although Chicagoans love to play up their city’s winter weather reputation, that won’t intimidate anyone who spent a long time living in another cold weather area. The summers, though, are like saunas. If they didn’t hit the high 90’s often, it certainly felt like they did, and the humidity frequently got so high that the fish in Lake Michigan didn’t have any trouble making breaks from the lake into cleaner waters. A school of fish taking a pleasant Sunday swim along Lake Shore Drive is capable of holding up traffic and endangering bicyclists. Motorists probably don’t want to get the guts of a splattered Great Lakes trout splattered on their windshields, just because fish guts don’t seem like the kind of thing that would come out very easily if you tried to wash them out with windshield wiper fluid.

Chicago’s Toughness is a Charade
If you move from a smaller city to a major 21st-Century megalopolis like Chicago, it’s only natural to feel a little overwhelmed at first, especially if the megalopolis in question has a reputation for drawing and quartering people. After awhile, though, it will become clear that the only reason Chicago has such a hard reputation is because the local media and frat megadouchebros running around on the Near North Side of the city are the ones who are saying it. You know those guys: Every Dylan and Chad in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville who was raised in Evanston or North Barrington and is working corporate for six figures because of Daddy’s marketing connections believing they’re suddenly hard because they’re loud, keep getting way too drunk at Cubs games, and bought every worthless piece of junk with Al Capone’s face on it.

I had lived in Chicago around a month when I figured out the city had nothing to show me on the toughness front, but one incident that happened after a few years sticks out to me: Combos – yes, the snack – had released a list of the 50 manliest cities in America, and Chicago was number 48. The only reason I know this is because the local media raised an uproar about it. Naturally, it was mentioned every other page in the following day’s Redeye, and I seem to recall something from the Sun-Times as well. I’m not sure which is worse here: The fact that Chicagoans took an innocuous list written as a promotion by a snack food corporation seriously, or that they were actually offended by it. I could only imagine the reaction if someone brought it up in Buffalo: “Hey, did you hear Buffalo was (some number) on the Combos list of manliest cities?” “The Combos what list now?”

As a close cousin, Chicago is also too under-equipped and prissy to pass itself off as a true winter city as well. It’s a city which has, more than once, run out of its snow removal budget. If there’s heavy snowfall, anyone who can’t dig themselves out will starve to death because their neighbors aren’t going to sweep in and take up the duty themselves. The highest snowfall I experienced during my residency in Chicago was around 15 inches, and it was enough to keep people off the streets for days. People barely went outside, and it was incredible to walk around days later and see how many people didn’t even shovel their front stairs.

That Infuriating Inferiority Complex with New York City
If your sole reason for moving to Chicago from anywhere in upstate New York is to escape New York City’s shadow, don’t. Every now and then there’s lip service to Chicago being the better city – which it is, except the people there don’t seem to believe that themselves. Tell a Chicago native you’re from New York City and watch them light up like they’ve noticed you’re Batman. Seeing a city which holds New York City up to the light – especially one like Chicago – is a slap in the face to someone who came from a place which was very clear about an ethos and attitude toward NYC which said “you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there. Or shut the fuck up about it before we run your ass out of town on a rail.” What the inferiority complex tells everyone is that New York City – with its impossible price ranges for everything, its legions of unaccomplished intellectual nitwits who believe they’re entitled to respect only by virtue of living there, and its upper class which takes every opportunity to flaunt its wealth to the lower classes – is something to be aspired to. I have some mixed feelings about my hometown, but I do still have enough pride in it to say: Chicago, you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there.

No Cycling Allowed

No Cycling Allowed

I took to trudging across the Transit Road bridge recently and picked up six nails. SIX. This is one of the major quirks I developed after I turned into a cyclist: Every time I’m out just walking, I stop and pick up every nail and screw I see discarded along the side of a road. I certainly wouldn’t want anything sharp puncturing my tire, especially if I’m far from either my house or a bicycle shop where I can get a quick fix.

I don’t think I’m making some far-out, absurd request by wanting a road shoulder free of debris so I can ride my bicycle without worrying about anything. Finding nails and screws on the side of a bridge is a very special kind of weird, though, because it isn’t like anyone has their houses or garages set up along the shoulder of the bridge. Most of these dangerous video game spikey points aren’t old and worn out bits which fell off the back of an old pickup truck, either – they’re new and ready to make their first stabbin’. This begs the question of how these pieces of debris manage to find their way out onto a bridge which is suspended a hundred feet in the air and which takes five minutes to walk across on foot. This bridge is dangerous enough as it is; the shoulder is maybe 18 inches, and that’s a generous estimate. There’s no sidewalk, which I guess is natural of a spot designed to keep people away from civilization at every possible cost. The section of road the bridge is placed on is essentially a freeway, and the only other way to cross the creek at this section of it is to walk over a mile along a twisting road to a whole other bridge which also lacks a shoulder, but is elevated much lower and is much shorter.

When I pick up the screws and nails, I just throw them out. What I would like to do is throw them out in the middle of the street in the hopes that they start popping tires in endless succession. Maybe they could cause a pileup.

Okay, I’m just ranting right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that debris-filled road shoulders present one of those great frying-pan-or-fire dilemmas for cyclists: Do we risk getting run over in the main road, or risk the debris on the shoulder? The dilemma itself doesn’t exactly stand on its own, but is instead a symptom of a larger problem: The city’s problem with bicycling. This is something Buffalo like to pretend doesn’t exist, and the city’s boosters love to hold up the shiny Bronze-level award given to it by the League of American Bicyclists to say “look at how great we are to bicyclists!” The Bronze-level award, though, is basically a door prize. Here’s the uncomfortable truth regarding the bicycle-friendliness awards handed out by the League of American Bicyclists: That Bronze-level award is the lowest of five tiers of bicycle-friendly awards. To be fair, I’m assuming the requirements to meet the League’s top-level statuses are pretty demanding. The Diamond-level award, which is the top level, was handed to precisely zero cities. Platinum-level is the second-highest, and it was given out to only four cities: Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon. My thoughts on that selection go like this: First, you knew Portland was going to be there. Second, of those four cities, the places people would actually visit are Portland and maybe Boulder.

The further you get down the awards list, the more the League loves handing them out. The Silver-level tier has a whopping 75 cities on it. There are at least a couple hundred sitting on top of the Bronze-level seats. It’s clear the League is giving out its Bronze-level awards to any city that isn’t actively outlawing bicycling. The Bronze-level list also includes suburbs: Batavia and Naperville, relatively close suburbs of Chicago, both have Bronze-level awards. North Little Rock is pretty much exactly what and where is written on its tin, and is similarly honored even though the real Little Rock didn’t make the cut.

This begs the question: What creates a bicycle-friendly community? Although the League of American Bicyclists claims it decides for “providing safe accommodation and facilities for bicyclists and encouraging residents to bike for transportation and recreation,” it seems to be flying solely by infrastructure, which is a mistake. A few miles of bicycle paths doesn’t make a city bicycle-friendly, and let’s be honest: A few miles of bicycle paths don’t necessarily mean the city added bicycle paths, either. They mean the city painted a few arbitrary lines on a road which is sometimes a little too narrow, which can endanger the cyclists. One website recently called out a popular bicycle publication because the publication placed New York City at the top of its list of best cycling cities, even though the argument for the city’s bicycle scene consisted almost solely of bicycle paths.

A quick Google search pops up a single result for bicycle tours in Buffalo: Buffalo Pedal Tours. Buffalo Pedal Tours offers bicycle tours at a price that’s a steal… For Buffalo Pedal Tours. The privilege of having a professional guide show you the pedal-view of Buffalo is close to $150 per hour. In the meantime, Chicago has Free Tours by Foot, which is a misleading name that offers bicycle tours and still has a name-your-price option. Their website brags about tours which cost about $40 per person. Bobby’s Bike Hike’s most expensive tour is $60. Looking for bicycle rentals in Buffalo brings up five results, all of which are primarily dealers or mechanics. Chicago has nine or ten places where you can rent. Although most of them are also shops and mechanics, there are at least three that deal exclusively with rentals.

Let’s talk about the one factor no one wants to mention: Peoples’ attitudes toward bicycling. Attitude is the angry elephant. It’s the difference between an onlooker asking a few curious questions or assaulting you, and whether or not your assailant gets away with it. Buffalo’s attitude toward cycling is to basically liken it to a form of witchcraft. Even if those little nuts and bolts I mentioned in the opening were removed, cars in Buffalo are still mistaken for weapons when a cyclist is spotted on the side of the road. Those while lines which are supposed to designate the bicycle lanes are more or less suggestions, and if a motorist is approaching while particularly close to the side of the road, the chances of them moving or give or take, even if they have all the space in the world on the other side. Some of these people have the gall to honk or even scream at you on the way by. I ride my bicycle to visit my bank which, despite being several miles down the road, is only a half hour away on the pedal. The distance gets treated like some insurmountable obstacle course involving several canyons and volcanoes, even by people who know I once worked as a bicycle messenger and have therefore lost all concept of the term “cycling distance.”

You would think Buffalo would have a little more understanding of how useful bicycles are. They’re cheap, you don’t have to buy gas for them, they’re accessible to places you can’t get cars into, and the suburban infrastructure is basically laid out in a lot of places so the people have to cross the furthest possible distances to get to civilization. Then again, we’re up against gas and automobile companies which view anything less than living in your car as a blowout loss.

Buffalo isn’t anything close to an ideal bicycling city. For it to improve, we need to see a mass influx of better cycling services, more bicycle rental and tour places, trails that aren’t painted on, and a friendlier infrastructure. But for that to happen, the people also need to start looking at bicycling as something greater than a game they learned as kids.

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

Adventures in Smashing Cars with Sledgehammers

It isn’t as easy as everyone makes it look in the movies, but damn if it ain’t fun!

Deep in the superconscious parts we don’t talk about, we all have these destructive fantasies of joyfully taking a sledgehammer and smashing some object of our ire until it’s smashed good. The University of Buffalo is having a Spirit Week, complete with all kinds of fun things to do. Today’s fun thing to do? Take a sledgehammer and smash a car! Anyone who thinks I would let this happen without my own participation just doesn’t know me very well.

The demolition was controlled. Everyone who wanted to take sledge to chrome had to sign a waiver and wear goggles, just in case a ricocheting piece of car backlashed the other way and hit us across the brow.

I arrived late for the festivities, but all that meant to me was that I didn’t have to wait very long, even though the car was already smashed in pretty good. Yeah, of course my great plan was to just take the hammer and go to town. As I watched some of the others in front of me in line, I tried to create a plan of attack: Number one, the back hubcap looked a little bit too pretty and un-smashed for some reason. Step two: Find the smaller, looser parts of the car and practice my long-dormant home run swing. Step three: Time to perform a little bit of body work! (I wonder if The Hulk ever pre-planned any of his smashing sprees.) My plan was quickly revised, though, after I decided to go with the crowd bandwagon and take my shot at finishing off the windshield frame, which was just a few good hits away from collapsing. Even the guard sign-in guy for the event seemed to be encouraging it.

My turn came. I made a beeline toward the pretty hubcap, wound up my golf swing, and took a hard, clean shot which hit the hubcap smack in the outer rim! There was a loud, muffled-sounding clang, and my sledgehammer vibrated, and after that…. Nothing. The damned hubcap wasn’t even dented! I figured my shot might have been a bit too far off the sweet spot, wound up, and socked the cap in the center. Still no damage.

Okay. I got the message and decided it was now my time to start gunning at the windshield frame. I move up to the front of the vehicle, taking a couple of good, hard cursory shots at the roof along the way. The whole time, the crowd watching had been encouraging everyone who partook in the beating to get angry. Now it was my turn to get angry, and lord knows it wasn’t difficult to come across my motivation. I was fucking standing right in front of it. Go back to my acting lessons and think of something that pisses me off: Bicycling in the Buffalo suburbs and getting assaulted by motorists! I got into a nice rhythm as I started regularly winding up and hitting away and, for the first time since I started, doing a little bit of visible damage. I got a few very nice shots at the frame, and I think the crowd was impressed that such a little guy could wield such power with a sizable sledgehammer.

The problem with window frames, though, is that they’re small targets. Sledgehammers are heavy, and they’re not going to be aimed the right way the entire time. So after a few good strokes, I missed a couple of times, hitting the little cross section at the frame and the roof. Then I missed with the hammerhead completely, and hit the neck of the hammer. The force behind that drive was so strong that I thought I saw a very slight bend in the hammer’s neck. There’s the waiver sense. I tried to point it out, but no one thought anything of it, so I finished up my turn.

It was fun, and I can now say I smashed both a car AND a house with a sledgehammer!

Surrendering My Most Identifiable Hobby

Surrendering My Most Identifiable Hobby

It’s an odd experience. One week of university is now behind me and my head feels like someone set off a shrapnel bomb on the inside. I’m still not exactly settled back into a routine physically. Mentally, my psyche is doing backflips.

I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of new information that I’m going to receive in order to become an expert in my field. Since I want to do this right, though, I’m prepared to make a couple of hobbyist sacrifices to make things easier on myself. The first that has to go is Lit Bases, my blog on baseball literature. Now, in the greater sense, this blog isn’t really going anywhere at all – it will stay up for everyone to read. But my actual writings for the site won’t be coming in once a month like before. My readings on the subject just can’t be done at the rate I used to do them because there’s a real dearth of interesting material in this city. Even if that wasn’t the case, I just can’t afford to spend hours at a time poring over each and every review I write for Lit Bases.

That’s one thing, but in mulling over my options, it became apparent that it might not be enough. Then a very radical idea hit me: Why don’t I stop following video games?

(Stop laughing, Rob.)

If you know me, you now know the insane level of dedication with which I’m attacking my newest adventure. Nicholas Croston, giving up video games? Calling this a gun-to-the-head level of sacrifice doesn’t quite do it justice. For this to happen, it would take someone using the National Guard to tie me down Hannibal Lecter-style after I had already taken his gun and beat him to a bloody pulp. Upon hearing this idea, me ten years ago rips your head off and beats the rest of you to death with the dangling spine (heyo, Mortal Kombat shout out). Me now is willing to hear out the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

I can’t think of a hobby I developed when I was young which was so useful to me then and became so outdated now. Back then, they were my escape from a harsh outside world which hated me even when I tried to conform to it. Now, I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. When was young, gaming was a bonding activity between me and other friends. Video games are still able to do that for me, but trouble comes in because I’m an adult, and my friends are adults, and we can rarely get enough time to hang out in the same place at the same time. Even on the increasingly rare occasions that happens now, we tend to meet in locations where video games aren’t available, or in situations which don’t allow for hours of playtime. If THAT happens, the idea of video game bonding has been irreparably damaged from what it was in the 90’s. There’s no junk food and Mountain Dew involved anymore, because we’re mature adults who want to stay healthy. Bonding over video games isn’t practical for the grown-ups unless it’s through an online game – a thought which is blasphemous to anyone raised in the 16-bit Era.

I’ve developed hobbies over the last decade which have managed to supplant video games, too. First and foremost, there’s writing, something I honestly believe I can make a living doing in some way or another. There’s also bicycling and photography, and all three of those things are largely portable, so I can do them around other people. To play video games, I have to stay in one place. I watch movies and sports a lot, which are two of life’s great small pleasures that are enhanced by company without anyone fighting over a controller. Besides, I’ve long been watching games evolve into something unrecognizable. Today’s games are beasts compared to what I was playing as a kid. Now, I’m not complaining about the evolution of the medium, but growing up has meant being very slow and resilient to being sucked into today’s behemoths. I’ve become something all kids swear they’ll never become: A victim of generational disconnect. Gaming made me realize for all time that I’m now out of the loop, possibly for good.

Of all the forms of mass media, video games are easily the one that requires the most amount of effort to pull out the reward. Movies and music require little time during the day, so it’s easy to run through several a day, or one several times. Video games need to be played over periods of at least days. Sometimes they take months. Now one might point out that so do books, but books don’t require a giant learning curve or exact cursor precision in order to advance. They don’t frustrate because of something the computer did to spite you personally.

Now, in a larger sense, this doesn’t mean I’m going to quit playing video games. What it does mean is that my game intake is about to drop, and I won’t be buying nearly as many games as I used to. I won’t be scouring websites for the latest news on Square-Enix’s newest apocalyptic RPG the way I used to in the past. I won’t be bitching about the next move by Electronic Arts which will cause the death of video games as we know them. My game reviewing – which is what awakened the online world to my writing – isn’t nearly as frequent as it used to be. There won’t be any more randomly buying games in the hopes that I’ve uncovered some hidden gem. Gaming is expensive, after all, and I want to know that what I’m getting is quality. When I was writing for Netjak, I thought nothing of renting or buying games I knew probably wouldn’t be any good just to see what they were really like. Also, time to let go of the Youtube walkthroughs and speed runs. I’ll still buy rare games and play them, but I’m not going to lose my head over some hard to get titles. If you find Secret of Monkey Island for the Playstation 2, let me know. I don’t care about Sonic the Hedgehog, even if it’s a full return to two dimensions.

If I’m being honest with myself, I know that video games haven’t been my primary hobby for years – I have several friends now who think of me as either Nick the Writer and/or Nick the Cyclist before Nick the Gamer. Even Rob encourages me to keep writing. The likelihood of my buying a console in the upcoming console generation is becoming less and less, partly because the games are too big for their own good and partly because I don’t want to fight through endless feature menus with everything else they’ll have. So this is it. Let me know if there’s a rare game and I might be interested. If there’s not, well, this chapter of my life will be closing.

How to Bicycle Like a Real Chicagoan: A FAQ

How to Bicycle Like a Real Chicagoan: A FAQ

It’s a given that Chicago is a very ideal bicycling destination. The flat terrain makes it easier to cycle there than it does in a lot of other cities, lots of nice bicycles lanes make it convenient, and the constant traffic congestion means it will be easier to get where you’re going on a bicycle than in a car. But what, you ask, is the story with bicycling in Chicago? What should you look out for and expect? How can you make the most of a real Chicago bicycling experience? I’m glad you asked, because here I am to give you the best advice you’ll ever hear about cycling in Chicago!

I don’t actually want to bicycle in Chicago. It’s windy, cold, and the sky always looks like a harbinger of doom.

Wuss.

But I didn’t bring my bicycle with me!

That’s not an excuse. There are many bicycle share and bicycle rental programs floating around in Chicago, many of which will lend you a perfectly good bike for half a day or a day for a reasonable price. Dish out the cash, then you’re free to use your bicycle any way you want! Ride in Critical Mass with your rental!

How do I deal with the cold?

Dress for it! Gloves and something to cover your ears with are both a big help. Wear nylon pants to keep the wind and any rain or snow off. Don’t skimp on the socks.

Oh no, my bicycle was stolen! How?

You locked it up with a cable lock, didn’t you? Yeah, they’ll cut through those things like hot butter. You need a good padlock, save the cables for making sure the seats don’t get stolen.

Why did you just smash that car’s rearview?

What, did you miss the part where he cut me off, braked right in front of me, then sent a whole red light screaming at me and honking his horn despite the fact that he couldn’t actually go anywhere at the time? Or the fact that he went around the block to tailgate me, or that he drove the wrong way up a one-way street? Well, rearview-smashing is our way of getting even. Motorists don’t care if they kill anyone, but hit them in the wallet, and they’ll think harder next time. Maybe. Hopefully. They’re motorists, so you can never be sure.

Where is the best place to begin a good bike ride in Chicago?

You’ll want to get on the Lake Shore Trail somewhere around the Shedd Aquarium or Soldier Field. Head north from there. When you get up to about Grand Avenue, head west until you get to Milwaukee Avenue, then ride up Milwaukee. That’s a nice way to begin. Or if you’re setting out on the last Friday of the month, go to Daley Plaza at 5 PM and ride in Critical Mass.

What about my plans to see the Magnificent Mile and Willis Tow-ow! OW! Why did you just stab me?!

So, are you really visiting Chicago just to see the national retail chains? Tourists visit the Mag Mile, and the drivers there all want you dead. You’re insane to try cycling up the Mag Mile. The cars swerve in every last direction without warning. And the Sears Tower is the tallest building in the city, and you can see it easily enough from the Lake Shore Trail. And I stabbed you because it’s called the Sears Tower, not Willis Tower, no matter what the popular news and travel outlets and insurances companies try to cram down your throat! You want to throw away money, do it in the small, local, and, you know, unique boutiques and quirky places along the Milwaukee strip in Bucktown. Or for god’s sake, at least Clark Street if your tastes are really that mainstream.

Is there a good place to get a Chicago-style hot dog on the way? And… Crap, I can never remember all the proper ingredients!

Dogs in this city are a dime a dozen. Surely you can find them easily enough along Milwaukee, or back down Clark, where I’m also going to send you. And don’t worry about remembering what’s on top of one. The guys making the dog will remember, which makes them a step up from any of the people who don’t work for hot dog joints. No one remembers all the toppings on a Chicago dog. If you’re getting a dog and can’t remember what the topping are, just use ketchup. I don’t care what those ridiculous cultists who are all opposed to ketchup on hot dogs say. Frankly, I can’t stand mustard, and among those cultists you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually has celery salt in their pantry. Don’t worry about the Chicago dogs. Worry about a proper Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

So, back to Milwaukee, where do I go after going up that street?

You’re free to hang east at Belmont, but if you want to see some of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city, wait until Lawrence. No matter which one you choose, you’re heading back to Clark.

Oh god, there are hipsters in Bucktown!

Yep. They may be annoying, but look at the bright side: They’re not trying to kill you.

What’s so special about this route, anyway?

Good, wide bicycle zones, considerate drivers, and good asphalt. Be picky about your favorite streets because some look like they’ve been through a war. Parts of Lake Street were capable of ripping the treads off a Sherman when I was living here. On the subject, LaSalle is also highly reccomended. Franklin used to be really awesome until they made it two-way. Now it’s merely awesome. Damen is a wonderful ride as well. On the South Side, be sure to visit Bridgeport and Bronzeville.

What about Hyde Park? That’s President Obama’s neighborhood!

Yes, I’ve had that Obama factoid drilled into my head. No, I don’t know where his house is. Anyway, what are you, rich? Go to some real neighborhoods. Live a little.

Hey, it’s Wrigley Field!

You don’t need to be at Wrigley Field to experience the ambience of a Cubs game. Go see a White Sox game. Watch actual baseball.

Wow, this is a big city! I’m starting to hurt!

It happens.

Why are you stopping at this bar?

I need a drink.

What, now?

Hey, you said you wanted to bike like a Chicagoan. Drinking before, after, and during a good bicycle ride is a proud Chicago tradition! If you’re in Critical Mass, it’s practically required!

What’s this Critical Mass thing you keep talking about?

A giant bicycle ride on the last Friday of every month where cyclists dress up in their peacock best and join together for a long bicycle ride! In good months, there are usually several hundred participants. Great way to see cycling as a subculture!

Who are those nutcases with the bags who keep zooming around The Loop?

Bike Messengers. Don’t mind them. They have work to do. Good folks. I did that myself for awhile.

Christ, didn’t you ever get hurt?

Thousands of times! Several doors, several cars, angry pedestrians, and the times when I was just carrying something big and lost my balance. That movie Premium Rush is more accurate than you would ever believe.

How long did it take to recover from all those accidents?

In the most severe cases, a day. That’s how long it took me to get back to work. I couldn’t go to the hospital most of the time.

What are you, crazy?

That’s what everyone keeps telling me.

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

Things I Miss Least About Chicago

I lived in Chicago for five years and was hoping to set roots down. It’s not the world’s best-kept secret that I miss the place, and so I briefly considered a list of things I miss about it.

When I started giving it some real thought, though, I realized such a list would be completely impossible. There are several reasons why, but I won’t regale you with the boring ones. I’ll just mention the big two: The first is that such a list would be a bit too personal for my own tastes and include concepts that are way too broad. Some of the stories I have from my life in Chicago go on quite a bit, and trying to condense them all in a list would necessitate the creation of an entire blog. (Which, by the way, I created a couple of years ago!) I would have to explain a lot of background details and in-jokes for a list like that to really fly.

The second reason is that there are simply way too many things I miss about The Windy City. It brings me a second time to the problem of it making the list too long.

Oh, what to do, what to do, what to do? Well, as I sat in a luxury hotel room on the set of a movie I was working on recently, me and a few other staffers and cast members conversed about this nasty heat that’s been holding the entire east coast hostage. As we lamented the heat in Buffalo, we began comparing it to the heat we had all felt in other places we had visited. Of course, the Chicago summer was what I had easily the best acquaintance with, so it became my immediate conversational victim. Then the idea hit me: I’ll write an anti-Chicago list, featuring everything I hated about the city! And that’s how we got to this point!

Summer
The warmest season and I were never on the best of terms in Upstate New York, but while the humidity could be unbearable, the heat was at least usually temperate. People from Buffalo take great delight in telling those from out of the area the city has never had a 100-degree day, and that the city averages only three 90-degree days per year. The big lake next to Buffalo sort of conditions the air.

Chicago’s summers have the very same type of weather, but with a quantification of about ten times. It gets hot, sticky, and uncomfortable. The sun beats up on people on clear days, and when it rains, it’s like the sky is taking one of those ongoing, powerful drunken leaks. All storms are severe – my first summer in Chicago, there were three tornadoes that stopped just short of the city in one month. In Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams wrote this about New York City: “A lot of the inhabitants of New York will honk on mightily about the pleasures of spring, but if they actually knew the first thing about the pleasures of spring they would know of at least 5,983 better places to spend it than New York, and that’s just on the same latitude.” Ditto Chicago in summer.

Whenever I discuss the weather in Chicago, people always ask me about the cold. I always tell them that if you’ve spent any real time living in Buffalo, the cold isn’t anything they can’t handle – it’s the summers they have to watch out for.

Lack of Civic Pride
Buffalo knows it’s never going to be the world class metropolis New York City is, and there’s a kind of dignity in knowing that which lets the people here attend to their business without a care about what happens there. Yes, we hate the place politically, but that’s mostly because it’s so disproportionally represented at every political level. Beyond that, though, the only real thing in New York City that’s of concern to upstaters is the fortunes of the New York Yankees, the favored baseball team across the state.

In terms of civic pride, Chicago is a classic bully. Chicagoans will always be the first to attack any other city to make themselves feel good about living in Chicago, even though Chicago is a world class city in every possible way. Unless, of course, there’s a possibility that the city in question might actually be some kind of rival to Chicago in some way – attacks on major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Atlanta inexplicably aren’t seen that often. And if New York City is dragged into the equation, well, a cursory glance at any of the newspapers or civic websites reveals the motherload of inferiority complexes; newspapers and civic websites are always clogged with people moaning about how Chicago will never be like New York City.

Redeye
A daily free rag published by the Chicago Tribune, Redeye may be the most insipid newspaper on Earth. I’m saying this, and I grew up reading The Buffalo News. Redeye has lists of bars, restaurants, and events, but those lists are microscopic in terms relative to the size of the city. There’s two or maybe three pages of substantial news events, all overshadowed by sports and celebrity coverage which is equal that length, written completely in bullets and blurbs, and consisting mainly of photographs and captions. For the first few years I was there, it also featured a sex column written by a womanizer.

Redeye may be the very symbol of Chicago’s inferiority complex. All other city-bashing starts in Redeye, and the celebrity buzz tends to treat celebrity sightings like the most amazing thing since Al’s Italian Beef, even though several celebrities call Chicago home and can be found roaming the Lake Shore Trail or soaking in Cubs games.

A friend of mine once delivered a speech at a religious convention in which she used the day’s Redeye as a prop. She mentioned the cover, which contained a picture of George Clooney, and got a laugh. Then she said – tongue completely in cheek – that she opened it in the hopes of finding something substantial, and got the biggest laugh of the convention.

Chicago is Not Broad-Shouldered
The Windy City is called The Windy City because the title was bestowed by a journalist who was covering Chicago’s notoriously corrupt politics. He called it The Windy City in regards to the fact that the local politicians were blowing hot air. Well, when the people there tell you how tough they are, they’re also spewing hot air. They take the smallest slurs against Chicago to heart. Most of them don’t know anything about how to properly weather out a bad winter, either, unless it’s by going to Florida for the season. This is not a populace that would ever think to lower itself to picking up snow shovels and digging out of a storm manually, as Buffalo did in 2001 when eight feet of snow fell in four days. They’ll buy out the local grocery store and wait for the city plows to bail them out – and that’s not a guarantee, since the snow removal department tends to run out of money.

Living Costs
My apartment in Chicago was one of those stereotypical walk-in closet-sized spaces. In Buffalo, it wouldn’t have been $400 a month. In Chicago, it cost $800 a month, and was considered a steal. I was rarely able to buy meat.

Buffalo is one of the worst cities in the country in taxes, so people in Buffalo have a hard time believing Chicago is even worse. The city has a ten percent sales tax, which was reduced TO ten percent! With the nasty income taxes being what they were, I was basically reduced to life on a $20 budget every week because I was an independent contractor who was making sub-minimum wage before taxes. This is why my life suddenly went south – it was too expensive to live there.

Parking
You would think that in a city with such excellent public transportation (and I mean that; yes, I complain about the CTA, but it never fails to get me where I need to go. If you don’t like it, try using the NFTA in Buffalo for a month!), more people would be willing to catch the bus and the L. Then again, there are 2.8 million people who live there.

I can’t forget the time my sister visited me and had to park two blocks over from my street. Or the time me and a girl I befriended at a local hostel tried to go to Millennium Park for an afternoon, but there were no open spaces in The Loop. I didn’t own a car, so this didn’t affect me most of the time, but tell any car-owning out-of-town buddies to bring their walking shoes.

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are one of the crown jewels of Major League Baseball, and one of its most popular teams. Yet, the fans always appear convinced that there’s some great baseball conspiracy against them which keeps them out of World Series contention. Listen to fans complain about the collapse of 1969 or some rule about where the 1984 NLCS was played which they pulled out of their asses.

In my article about the Cubs, I made a few particularly harsh blanket remarks about the fans. Now, I didn’t mean them using complete blanket terminology; there are good people and devoted, knowledgeable fans in the Cubs’ base. Unfortunately, there tends to be a frat party mentality surrounding Wrigleyville, and during games with big opponents or at certain times, drunkenness takes over and invites a lot of boorish behavior which isn’t confined just to the stadium. Being in Wrigleyville during a Cubs game can be a trial of patience because the stadium, unlike every other baseball stadium, is right in the middle of the neighborhood. The team seems to encourage this – the Harry Caray statue in front of Wrigley Field comes off as an endorsement, and the celebrity rotation singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” doesn’t help.

Also, the owner of Wrigley Field doesn’t mind endangering the fans. The field is clearly falling apart – some spots are literally held up by nothing more than loose fishnetting – but it’s privately owned, and so the owner keeps refusing to repair the place. The fact that he’s using the White Sox’ public funds as leverage to get taxpayer cash of his own is the single greatest argument American sports has against public money being involved in professional sports.

Cycling in the Wind
Yes, The Windy City gets its share of the blowy stuff. If you’re into cycling, trying to ride a bicycle in the wind is like drinking a potion that allows you to walk through walls, then trying to walk through a cliff.

The Bid for the 2016 Olympics
So Mayor Richard Daley decided he wanted to wipe out a large public space in a poor neighborhood to build a big stadium and athlete housing which would have been used for two weeks. He wanted to add a fifth star to the Chicago city flag representing an Olympics he hadn’t even won yet.

This bid in and of itself, by the way, cost $50 million in taxpayer dollars. You want to know where all the tax money is going? Here’s your answer. The most offensive part is that his entire urban development plan seemed to hinge on getting the Olympics.

Frankly, one would have to be a complete fucking moron to even want and apply for the Olympics after knowing the kinds of wreckage they’ve been responsible for leaving in their host cities. Chicago would, in preparation, have gone through terrible traffic delays, small business shutdowns by the special, gestapo-like Olympics Police, construction, and poor people being herded out of the areas they lived in so the athletes could take over for two weeks. All on the public’s dime, of course, and in a city which wasn’t able to pay for it.

For Those Who ARE Bicycle Friendly….

For Those Who ARE Bicycle Friendly….

Sadly, I don’t have a way to work this into anything I have to write. However, bicycling is something I truly believe in, and I received an email recently from someone asking me to promote a website graphic where you can buy bicycle racks for your car. Since this is something I’m big on, I’ve decided to post the graphic and the link. Here’s hoping he gets business:

http://www.bikerackshops.com/guide_to_buying_the_perfect_bike_rack/

guide to buying the perfect bike rack for cars