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A Short Journey to Chicago, a Brief Comparison to L.A.

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I went to Chicago the other day to meet with students who are part of the MFA program in nonfiction at Columbia College. Later, I gave a reading to which those students and the public had been invited. I brought to Chicago all my provincialism.

It had been a hard winter on the western shore of Lake Michigan, my hosts told me. And winter had ended, but it wasn't yet spring. The empty stretches along the Blue Line tracks from O'Hare Airport to downtown were grey and brown. The suburbs that sprawl out on the prairie were gray and brown, too.

The core of downtown Chicago is even more rigidly gridded than Los Angeles, with its crooked orientation away from the cardinal points of the compass still preserved. Chicago's street grid is pure Jeffersonian. No other imperial imagination makes a counter claim to the landscape. Westward from Michigan Avenue the grid parcels out the ground into short and often narrow blocks.

Unlike most of Los Angeles, where the blocks are long, Chicago's short blocks seemed more pedestrian. I seemed to make more forward progress because I could tick off more cross streets that I passed.

Everyone was very nice, which is supposed to be a Midwest trait about which my hosts were ruefully pleased, as if they felt Midwesterners weren't up to the struggle for urban existence but that's the way it is. I almost never find working people to be disagreeable. Probably because I'm rarely disagreeable.

Chicago is both whiter and blacker than Los Angeles, although down the block from the student housing where I stayed is a good taco place, I was told. I had sushi one night. It wasn't bad, although it was served in a Chinese restaurant.

O'Hare is a better airport than LAX. There's some place to eat every few feet. Blue Line trains from downtown terminate in the airport terminal and the trains run all day and night.

It had been in the upper 80s in Los Angeles the days I was gone. It was in the mid-40s in Chicago. I came back on a cooling afternoon to the commonplace palms at the airport and with the sense that the season of light that precedes the gray of late May and June was well advanced.

It hadn't beeen spring in Chicago yet. And it wasn't not spring yet in Los Angeles.

I took the ridiculous free shuttle from the airport to the Aviation Station of the Green Line and transferred to the Blue Line. And then I was home.

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