So, what do you find in a place that calls itself the “Second City” and makes it sound both boastful and self-effacing?
Chicago is vast and wonderfully varied. Maybe because it sprawls out so gradually in every direction. Modern Chicago has a tendency to pool into different bubbles of culture. Poverty dwells bafflingly close to plenty, cooler-than-thou hipsters rub elbows with sturdy Midwest Lutheran types, and you can alternately find yourself in a downtown that's served as a dead-ringer for Gotham City, and outskirts that fade into suburbs so gradually you might never realize its happened. However, if you know where to look, you can find some one-of-a-kinds for your tastes, regardless of what those might be.
Forget deep-dish pizza right off. For native Chicagoians, the fast food market in the second city is all about the hot dog. You can hardly walk a block without running into stores in all states of cleanliness promising you some take on this dish, which usually comes with everything on it but the kitchen sink (and ketchup). However, none of them commend the same unanimous level of approval as the fairly remote “Hot Doug's” which bills itself as an “encased meats emporium.”
Where else could you get a brandy-infused rabbit hotdog topped with pomegranate seeds, gourmet sauces, and foie gras? Their french fries, cooked in duck fat, inevitably wrap a line around the block -- when they're available on the weekends. In addition to their rotating gourmet specials, they also have an extensive number of variations on the classic hot dog.
Proprietor Doug Sohn uses his culinary-school education to dream up fast-food that defies description, although he admits that one or two of his concoctions have been too much for the average diner. “We once tried a french sausage, basically intestines stuffed with more intestine. That one didn't really sell,” he recalls. “It didn't help that I wound up saying to a lot of people, 'Do you know what's in it? No? Then you wouldn't like it’.”
Sohn, is an energetic, surprisingly friendly guy who insists on doing things his way. On the downside, this means very odd hours, plus closures on most holidays since Sohn won't allow the place to operate without him at the helm, talking to customers and working the register.
“I could never relax if I was waiting for my cell phone to ring and tell me something had gone wrong,” he says. “When I get back, I want the place to be either exactly as I left it. Or a smoldering crater. Either way, I know what the next steps are.”
Comic shops are another institution that's strangely common in Chicago. There's no shortage of places to buy either superhero fare or more indie collections. The city is also home to webcomic pioneer John Campbell (www.picturesforsadchildren.com)
The fact that a cluttered hole-in-the-wall like Quimby's has maintained a steady following for nearly 20 years in the heart of Bucktown, holding it's own against a legion of other places to get a literary fix, proves that there are things worth seeing contained within. In particular, Quimby's has become famous because -- as if a good selection of comics, alternative magazines, novels, erotica and tattoo histories wasn't enough -- they'll sell anything that their customers bring them, at least three copies of. The shelves are peppered with every sort of independent zine, story collections, obscene comics, amateur poetry, or other publication you can think of, running the gambit from the crudely photocopied to the full-color, professional, and elaborately produced.
“Asking what sort of people read 'zines, or make zines..it's like asking what sort of people read magazines. There are kinds for everybody, by everybody,” says Kate, an employee who conversed with the same casual knowledge about a memoir on tabletop gaming as she did about an underground treatise on lock picking, produced with some regularity by a local cell of an anarchist publishing group.
Zines that stay around the shop for a long time get bundled into blind grab-bags and sold for a few dollars, although some remain on the shelves for years before that happens. Others have regular followings and move quickly. In terms of floorspace, the place could never begin to compete with some of the two-floor giants of the book selling industry, but you can find yourself browsing there for just as long simply because they have so many things you can't find anywhere else.
In the late ‘70s and ‘80s the city played a significant, if unappreciated part in the punk movement in America, with bands like the Effigies and Naked Raygun, who recently started touring again and have announced they are back for good. This bit of history has been receiving more attention in recent years, especially with the release of the 2006 documentary You Weren't There, which traced the history of Chicago punk from 1977 to 1984. Chicago was home to the Fireside Bowl, a “legendary” venue that was a bowling alley by day and mecca of punk and hardcore shows by night. While city ordinances forced it to return to it's bowling-alley roots in 2004, the location still holds a lot of fond memories for those who would trek there from all over the area.
Brian Peterson, the author of Burning Fight (a history of the punk and hardcore scenes during the ‘90s), is no stranger to attending shows in Chicago. Peterson is one of those old-school guys who can still fondly remember the Fireside Bowl and other venues that he frequented during his youth. He recalls the scene “feeling like home” and, in his opinion, more diverse in Chicago than any other city at the time.
“Kids from all different scenes in punk and hardcore would see each others’ bands, and vice versa,” he says. “There was a huge diversity of ideas. I'd feel like I learned something at those shows.”
According to Peterson, there's a “thriving, amazing scene” in Chicago right now that attracts a lot of interesting bands.
“There was a period in the early 2000s when bands didn't seem to be saying as much, and there was more of a macho thing, which was always there but became more pronounced,” he says. In the last three years though, bands have had more in the way of messages, from bands like Boiling Over, Poison Planet, and Closing In. And the hardcore scene in particular is “as strong as ever.”
Whether ideas are being swapped in the topping on a hotdog, in hand-printed zines, or at a DIY show, Chicago is place for juxtapositions.