Navigate to Community section

Summer in Chicago

A dispatch from the bluest city in America

Clayton Fox
July 03, 2023

I’m guiltier than sin and our apartment is a cave of self-incrimination so I get going. It’s summer now and even in Chicago, this arctic prairie curiosity (fucking lunatic Jean Baptiste Point du Sable chose to settle this place, well good for him, he made some moolah) the sun is out, and it’s hot. Hot enough for me to wear my Sade muscle-tee, which I only wear when I’m feeling wiry and which I always hope will buy me a compliment, or at least camaraderie from fellow devotees of luminous songs about love.

I’ve got a lot on my mind: the exploitation of our military, the final collapse of Western art, the impending financial calamity, the inevitable and already prophesied “disease X” pandemic, Putin’s nuclear option, whether or not my girlfriend and I are going to get married, move to Nashville, have kids, or none of the above, whether she deserves someone who lives in more clarity—who can give her that wonderfully masculine illusion of certainty that I once described to a female friend as the difference between the men who are rocks and the ones who are feathers.

Almost immediately it hits me: hot, sweaty, big city tension. People are pissed. Something is wrong. I take my usual route. Within 90 seconds, as if in a tourist’s fever dream of Chicago, I pass two young women screaming at each other across the roof of their car parked by the side of the road. “I’ll fuck you up, bitch!” “Let’s go! Let’s go. You wanna go? Come on!”

Long strides. I’m walking behind a young man now, with his dog. The guy’s oddly slow, with a lumbering gait, energy off, disturbed. I don’t want to pass him. I don’t want him to see me. I cross the street. Fuck this.

I head to the grocery store. We need tortillas and coffee and eggs. At the checkout counter it’s not some sweet old lady asking how my day is going—not even a miserable but tenacious middle-aged lady operating with brutal efficiency, prompting me to punch in my phone number for the discounts. It’s a kid. A young guy. Twenty-something. Hideous tattoos. Hideous piercings. Glazed eyes. Catatonic. Mumbling. Painted nails. Satanic vibes. The woman behind me is impatient, shouting questions about her water bottle price before I’ve even paid.

Then I’m at the coffee shop with a friend, outside on the patio enjoying the sun, in a neighborhood like so many in Chicago, festooned with Black Lives Matter yard signs and Ukrainian flags, discussing the clusterfuck zeitgeist which now equates a hand on a thigh with sexual assault. Those are different things, I am saying, and the perpetrators ought to be dealt with accordingly, but this is too much for the woman sitting two tables down who starts off nasty, going right for the jugular. “White men shouldn’t even be discussing this. It’s disgusting. Only women of color should even get to talk about this!” We hadn’t mentioned race at all and she was, of course, white. After shouting at us long enough that passersby stopped to watch, she departed, pulling on her St. Bernard while pointing at me over and over while shouting, “OK little white boy! OK little white boy! OK little white boy!”

Long strides again as I relay this story to another friend later on. We speak in a hoarse whisper, even though we are outdoors and in the “freest country in the history of the world.” We are walking right behind someone with a pair of rainbow colored slip-ons. We slow to a crawl to give them space. Then we cross the street when I notice we are walking right behind a young woman with pink hair. Chicago, like many American cities, is now a live action game of rightspeak Frogger.

Almost immediately it hits me: hot, sweaty, big city tension.

At last we make it to church: Kingston Mines, the Notre Dame of the blues. One place in Chicago that hasn’t changed much since the pandemic, and remains pure joy and life and fierce vigor. Inside, there are a mix of Black, white, Asian, female, male, middle-aged tourists, and lusty young locals connecting to a uniquely American and especially Chicagoan art form, one that speaks about life as it is, not as the television would have you believe. And that’s how it felt, being back: a little more subdued than my halcyon days, but pure, simple. Ancient.

The lead performer that evening, blues legend Nora Jean Bruso, tells us she’s from the Mississippi Delta and that all 15 of her siblings have the gift for music, but she’s the only one carrying on the family tradition. She sings about men who cheat and the women who keep showing up for them—or the women who finally tell them, “You better stop cheatin’ on me or I’m out.” She keeps repeating “it ain’t nothin’ but the blues” the way some people say, “Now see here.” I don’t think she’d ever want me to say anything around her but the unvarnished, brutal, fucking truth. After all, that’s the blues. That’s Nelson Algren and Upton Sinclair and Richard Wright and Studs Terkel and Lorraine Hansberry and Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy and Saul Bellow and Luther Allison and David Mamet and Tracy Letts. That’s another Chicago. The one I used to brag about in New York. The big Midwestern middle finger to pretense and elitist fads.

It still is, here and there. Cracks in the psychotic, media-engineered façade of mutual distrust and surveillance and suspicion appear. On the train down, two young Black teenagers started chatting with a jacked white guy covered in tattoos. They loved the tattoos, wanted to know how much they cost. White guy told them. Told them he was in the army. One of the kids kept shaking his hand, thanking him for serving. When we got to the Mines, outside, a circle of white girl servers—small town types on a smoke break—joked with their Black bouncer that nobody would fuck with him because he’s huge but also because, “people are scared of Black guys.” He puffed on his cigarette. “Yep,” he said. They all laughed. They work together. They sweat. They chat and joke and laugh. They’re like humans used to be.

I doubt that Nora or those girls or that bouncer like the strange, tense vibe the city has taken on. I also doubt they like what I heard later that night around 2:30 when I was trying to go to bed. Right outside our bedroom window, five loud pops, somewhere pretty close. Hard to gauge. Laying there, about 30 seconds later, I heard someone sprinting down the alley, moving fast. Maybe it was fireworks. A summer night in Chicago. Or maybe it ain’t nothin’ but the blues.

Clayton Fox writes Tablet’s daily newsletter, The Scroll, alongside Sean Cooper and Jacob Siegel. He has written independently for Tablet, Real Clear Investigations, Brownstone Institute, American Theatre magazine, Los Angeles Magazine and The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @clayfoxwriter