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Going to the Big City!

June 14, 2010 | 19 Comments

Mr. Keillor:
I just graduated from high school in a small town in central Kansas, and am looking forward to going to college in Chicago.

What should I expect moving to a big city?

-A Lifetime Fan


A large moment in your young life, Mister Graduate, and of course your family will get it all on film but you should start keeping a daily journal in recognition of the largeness of the passage. Avoid the grandiose ("Looking up at the sky, I feel the vast indifference of the universe....") and simply record the daily factual matters. ("I studied for four hours in the library and then She sat down opposite me at the table. Wanda is her name and she is the love of my life.") You didn't ask my advice, but I'll give it anyway: remember that every day is a new day and every day deserves a clean pair of underwear. What you can expect in the big city are frequent violent attacks of feelings of utter insignificance. In Kansas, you were known, you carried a history, people smiled to see you, they knew your ancestry, you were a shining star, and in Chicago you are simply one gerbil in a vast gerbil colony, millions of you running on your tiny wheels, and who cares? This feeling of insignificance has two sides, one dark, one light. The dark side is futility and loneliness and depression. The bright side is freedom. Nobody is watching you, judging you, expecting you to be the person they want you to be: you're free to be the you you can hardly imagine right now. You're free to be Somebody that maybe you wouldn't dare to be in Kansas. Your small-town upbringing has given you certain good habits — honesty, perseverance, good manners — that will stand you in good stead in Chicago. You'll pick up some big-city skepticism and style, and you'll come to love Chicago. You'll embark on the great intellectual adventures of college and in that heady atmosphere you'll make friends who will be good friends for the rest of your life. You will go home a hero next summer. Just remember not to get hit by a bus and avoid the greasy tentacles of addiction and obsession and learn how to cheer yourself up when you feel down. And write a little bit in your journal every day. And put on clean underwear every day.


A lot more traffic, and the need to pray a lot more!

Remember to track your surprises. All too soon things will seem routine, but remember what surprised you.

I went from Iowa farm & small town high school to a Chicago college. It was a mixed experience. Missed somethings like seeing sunsets & sunrises everyday & quiet at night. But I learned to sleep with street traffic & to stop wondering if I knew the person in trouble when I heard a siren. I made friends with a native Chicagoan who was happy to introduce me to the city. I have lived many places since and think I could now be happy in rural or city. Every experience can add to who we are; take it all in, the big city will be balanced by the campus life

Chicago is a great "transitional" city-- it's rural and urban at the same time. When you run for the bus, the driver tends to WAIT FOR YOU (this does not happen in New York, believe me), and strangers will chat you up in ways they don't in other Big Cities. I remember seeing a serious-looking man in a serious-looking suit carrying a VERY serious-looking briefcase... and he was wearing a Santa hat (this was a few Decembers back).

Just make sure your new apartment/dorm room has air conditioning, and be sure to try Harold's Fried Chicken and the asada tacos at La Pasadita on Ashland Ave. Everything else will fall right into place.

In Chicago:

There is NO putting ketchup on hot dogs. Mustard, relish, onion, celery salt, fine, but NO ketchup.

You can like the Cubs, or the Sox, but NOT both.

The street grid runs from 0/0 at State and Madison, so the little N,S,W, or E prefix on the address number is REALLY important. Learn it, or spend half your time one hundred and eighty degrees away from where you wanted to be.

They are not kidding about tow zones. Skip the car, and ride the El. You get to see the backyard of the city.

By the time you leave here, you should, at least once, meet the love of your life under the big clock at Marshall Field's (Which is now Macy's, but no one here calls it that).

I was born here, and God willing, when I die, it'll be on Chicago concrete. Yeah--it's THAT special.

Paul Burgess

Paul, you are AWESOME, and you give excellent advice... though I take issue with the Cubs/Sox polarity-- I've found lots of folks (usually from the North Side) who like the Cubs AND the Sox... but NO ONE from the South Side who has anything but scorn for the Cubs. The saying goes that the only thing a White Sox fan likes better than a White Sox win is a Cubs loss.
I had hoped that the fact our current president is both a dedicated mediator and a Sox fan might bring the city together, but, well... he'd probably do better trying to bring peace to the Middle East than resolve THAT cross-town rivalry. (Personally, I don't think either version of detente is going to happen.)

Remember that it doesn't get dark at night. I moved to a small city at 18 from the country, and stayed up until 2 a.m. one night because I was waiting for it to get dark. Finally I realized there were streetlights outside my living room window.

Also, it's not a good idea to go barefoot in the park. That same summer, I sliced up a foot by jumping for a Frisbee in the park and coming down on a hidden sprinkler head. Ouch. I was used to going barefoot all summer. I still miss that.

Mr. Graduate-

As a fellow small-townian who is now 10 years removed from his own rural to urban (Chicago as well, welcome aboard!) transition, let me first vouch for everything Mr. Keillor offers above. It's golden advice, I recommend you review it all frequently.

Allow me to expand based on my own experience. "Jaded" or "Hardened" are typical terms that often get attached to longtime residents of any urban environment. It is easy to fall into the stereotypical streetwise archetype, which can bring with it a cynicism toward the simpler things in life. If I had my way, more people would avoid this. Let me encourage you to embrace the fascination and wonder that you will feel when you first arrive, and avoid the pressure to present a facade of "been there done that." Metropolises are wonderful places, filled with challenging things. We invented cities as a way to aggregate those things that are most important to us all, be it art, music, education or simply the ability to meet and connect with each other. Be fascinated by all that surrounds you, seek out that which is unfamiliar, and don't ever be apologetic about admitting that a particular experience or opportunity is new to you.

Chicago is a great ride, do everything you can to enjoy it.

The way it went during my 25 years in Chicago was that South Siders said North Siders were too dumb to be able to count, so they had to put a name on every street, and North Siders said South Siders were too dumb to remember the street names, so they had to number all the streets.

I moved from Chicago to a very rural small town in Western Illinois. All of what Garrison said above was reversed for me. In Chicago I was anonymous, here everbody knows me. They know everything about me and I have to explain to my Chicago friends that you can't flip off the guy down the road that accidentally cut you off as you were driving past his place or or do many of the things that Chicagoans are used to because here it is not an anonymous act. Also the guy who said that Chicago is a rural and urban at the same time has never lived in a rural area. Chicago maybe more polite in general than New York but so are Berlin, Madrid, Tokyo, and many big towns. There is nothing rural about Chicago!

I, too, left my small town roots in Southern Illinois to go to college at Northwestern, just north of Chicago. At first I was intimidated by hose and high heels (I was used to saddle oxfords and sox), multitudes of cashmere sweaters, (though I DID have a little bit of mink collar on my winter coat), and all the OTHER straight A students (my dad had warned me about being average).

But, Chicago was Mecca: theaters, museums, restaurants, symphony hall AND The Edgewater Hotel for dinner and dancing.

I got used to the privileges very quickly, and so will you!

I'm from rural Iowa and take bus trips to Chicago. For the last 25 years, I learned to avoid the hassle of having a car in Chicago. You may be living there in a dorm or apartment, but enjoy playing tourist. Pubic transit is excellent, L's or bus.

If you want rural, go to Navy Pier for the Chicago Flower & Garden Show in March... amazingly beautiful gardens and small forests brought into the expo center which also has free traveling art exhibits, a permanent stained glass museum, and great restaurants with affordable prices.

Boat tours through Chicago are based from Navy Pier.

Don't miss Chinatown eateries & shops.

Consider buying a membership to the Chicago Art Institute so you can visit anytime. They also have a reasonably priced gourmet restaurant. Down the street from Macy's is a 3-story art supply store with prices a fraction of what I used to pay for paint & canvas etc. in Iowa.

Take a stroll through the Palmer House Hilton. See Marina City, go up to the top of the Hancock, and see the award-winning new Aqua building, a wavy sculptural delight. Live theatre Chicago is another must.

The lake is always east.

I lived in Chicago the first 30 years of my life. I married a Navy guy so we traveled and lived in many places in the States and abroad.
I have always missed:

-Chicago style pizza
-Italian beef sandwiches
-Chicago radio stations especially WGN
-Cubs games on the radio and at Wrigley

The weather is JUST part of Chicago -- the winters will make you really appreciate all the nice days.

Italian beef sandwiches! OMG, why did Nancy have to mention that? Now I'll have a craving for a week...
In Chicago, make some friends who've lived there a while; they can tell you which El stations NOT to get off at. You know there are some.
Paul Burgess, I'm so glad to know "everyone" still refers to that store as Marshall Fields. It about broke my heart when Macy's bought it.

What? Did I overlook something?

Let's not forget to mention The Berghoff Restaurant on West Adams St. (near State) and Pizzerias Uno and Due close to Marina City. Also my favorite luncheon spot, The Walnut Room, located 7-floors above the NE corner of State & Washington Sts.

For people watching, Michigan Ave. north of the Chicago River is unmatched. If "doing retail" is a favorite pastime, "Boul Mich" will vaporize your credit card by the time you reach Oak St.

METRA, the operator of heavy-rail suburban services, has a $7.00 all-weekend pass for trains that run out of 500 W. Madison St., Chicago Union Station, LaSalle St. Station, and Randolph & Michigan.

WFMT, 98.7-fm, has a classical music programming experience that is uniquely Chicago. Don't overlook it.

Mr. Graduate,

Though I have never lived in Chicago, my move was from a small upstate NY town to New York City. I cannot comment on what to do in Chicago, but please note that all cities are shockingly expensive to live in. Try to avoid the pitfall of trying to keep up with the Joneses. Your rent should never be more than 1/3 of your income. If you're living on campus, you may not find this advice helpful...yet. But keep it in mind when you are looking for your first apartment. Sometimes it is better to live 30 to 40 minutes outside the glamorous center of the big city and be able to eat, travel home, and have some fun once in a while, than it is to blow all of your income on a place that is not in your budget. And be sure to keep grounded by going back to Kansas every so often. The memories you made there make up the person you are today. Never lose that.

Mister Graduate:

I ventured from a small town in Iowa to the University of Chicago many years ago, and Keillor is offering you sage advice on keeping a journal.

You will be changed in ways you cannot anticipate in the years ahead - so much that you may not even remember who you once were, unless you strive to remember it. A journal may be your closest friend in the years to come; it will help you hang on to the goodness of what you are now, and keep the best of it.

Harold's Chicken, along with clean underwear, can be a wholesome part of your coming days. I'd recommend the barbecue as well as hot sauce, enough to drench the french fries and Wonder Bread at the bottom.


The one piece of advice I would give you is to remember why you are in the "big city" in the first place. If you have the right type of personality, you will fall in love with the lifestyle. Just remember your GRADES. Get caught up in everything but school and you will be back in your small town faster than you can say "what do you mean no curve?"!

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