CHICAGO — If a visitor went merely by the storefronts in a one-block radius on Michigan Avenue outside the hotel, it would appear the Magnificent Mile has a Seattle infection.
Nordstrom. Eddie Bauer. Starbucks.
Yeesh. What’s next? Jean Enersen jogging around a statue of J.P. Patches and Gertrude?
But it doesn’t take long for the local scene to rally. The Chicago Sun-Times had one word and two numbers on its masthead for the Saturday weather forecast.
Raw. 24. 9.
On an inside page is a prediction for the Sunday environment that hosts the Seahawks-Bears NFL playoff game at Soldier Field:
Cloudy. 18. 11.
That’s more like it. Bleary, hard Midwest cold.
Dirty curb snow thick as the famous pizza crust. Women’s faces buried in fur collars. Pedestrians falling into potholes the size and shape of John Belushi.
What’s really more like it is the Billy Goat Tavern, the grotto dive beneath the celebrated boulevard that has hosted generations of Chicago news hounds and sports fans. It went national 25 years ago when “Saturday Night Live” made a catch phrase of “Cheezborger, cheeps, Pepsi, no Coke.”
Damned if Sam Sianis, the legendary proprietor, isn’t still at the bar, thumbing through the newspaper. The tavern, the man and his family have been here almost since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was a calf.
Looks as if a new generation of Sianis kin, handsome Greeks in the tradition of the wall photos of Sam as a “yoot,” have the place in hand, with the proper instructions: Clean it up occasionally, but don’t change anything.
You go, Chicago. Or rather, don’t go. Please.
I met Sam years ago on my first trip to Chicago. Every visit since, I make it a point to shake his hand and say hello. Never remembers me, and won’t remember me by Sunday, which makes it nice, because the pressure’s off both of us to say something original.
Bears-Seahawks. Bull-Sonics. Mariners-White Sox. All have had big post-season match-ups here, which may explain my view that this is the best sports town in America.
After having doubla-cheez, cheeps and Pepsi for lunch, I asked Sam what he thought about the big game Sunday.
“Oh, bad weather,” he said, smiling. “Bears pretty good in bad weather.”
Told him Seattle’s got some mudders too, but there’s nothing like the home ice. We chatted some more, he went back to his paper and I left, certain he would be upon the stool on my next visit, the Cubs-Mariners World Series in 2037.
The cab driver from the airport, Jay Kraus, knew the names of the Bears offensive linemen. Cool. Knew the business of the street too.
“Tickets a while ago for the Bears game were going for $1,600-$1,700,” he said. “Now take a zero off.”
Why? Don’t people know the Bears are 10-point favorites?
“It’s the Bulls,” he said. “They play the Heat (Saturday night). That’s where the big money is.”
Toldja. Great sports town.