My guitar gently weeps for Chicago, John Prine, sinful sandwiches and the old 'hood near Wrigley

My guitar gently weeps for Chicago, John Prine, sinful sandwiches and the old 'hood near Wrigley
Family ties to this shady stretch of Addison Street, near Wrigley Field, go back almost 100 years. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

In our last installment, I'd been pantsed by the TSA, fleeced by the rental car company, and nearly hammered to death by mosquitoes in the hometown I hadn't visited in five years.

Do not become alarmed. This is pretty much how I always roll.


Now we're leaving behind the malarial joys of the northwest suburbs for the city, which is really where my heart resides. My guitar gently weeps for Chicago, my ancestral comfort zone.

Cue John Prine. Turn on the Cubs. Order me an Italian beef combo, extra peppers, extra beef, extra everything.

"Where we going, Dad?"

"The belly of the beast," I tell my son.


"Even better," I say. "Chicago."

We're in Day Six of our weeklong summer vacation, and I'll confess to being a little buzzed by the experience. The weather has been remarkable — 80 and dry. If nothing else, Chicago is renowned for its gentle Mediterranean climate.

It's the kind of lazy August day made for pranks and paper airplanes, pub crawls and — if you can still find one — bumming around a great bookstore.

(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Cue John Prine. Order me an Italian beef combo, extra peppers, extra beef, extra everything.

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One morning, I went for a long run, then a long swim, then a drive through the hills of my sleepy hometown, where the dark leaves hang heavy in the trees, like clumps of grapes.

Another day this week, we piled in the car -- my sister, my niece and the little guy -- and went off to lunch in Lake Geneva, a lush vacation spot just over the Wisconsin line, where we suddenly decided to buy swimsuits, rent a speedboat, park in the middle of the lake and dive in.

Go Packers! Go Badgers! Kerplunk.

Of course, as we all swam, the rental speedboat started to drift in the beefy afternoon winds, at a pace slightly faster than I can swim. Big deal. It could only go so far before coming to rest on the muddy shoreline, soft as cheese curds. I knew I'd eventually swim it down, and I did.

Do not become alarmed …

"You seem in such a good mood, Dad," said the little guy.


"That's because you're here," I explained.


"What's your name again?" I ask.

"Beavis," he says.

"Nice to meet you," I say.

Yeah, my travel mate is the kind of boy who startles himself when he burps. I introduce him to strangers and old friends as "my little brother," just for the awkward pause that ensues. I cherish those weird moments in life when no one knows quite what to say next. To me, it's an art form.

And how can the two of us not have fun? Father and son. Huck and Tom. Butch and Sundance. We're in the heartland, on a near-perfect day, when the waves on Lake Michigan are the color of Charlize Theron's eyes, duck-egg blue and stumbling all over each other.

Besides, on vacation time stops. Whimsy takes over. With my sister and her family, we play board games and stay up late. We sleep till we wake up and pal around the kitchen the next morning, putting everything in our omelets, in no hurry at all.

This day, we're headed into the city, where two of the nieces are moving. As luck would have it, we're in town during the move from their parents' place in the suburbs to the post-collegiate playground of Wrigleyville.

"Can you drive a U-Haul?" my sister asks.

Can I drive a U-Haul? I used to race U-Hauls.

"I won Le Mans in a U-Haul," I remind my sister.

And we're off.

Once sooty and shopworn, Wrigleyville has been revitalized in the last couple of decades, becoming a sort of post-graduate halfway house for Big 10 kids transitioning from the rigors of Champaign or Ann Arbor.

The little tavern down the block. Also the family church.
The little tavern down the block. Also the family church. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

The line of thinking is: "We can't just dump them directly into the real world. They need bartenders to look after them."

In Wrigleyville, rents are fair and cultural options plentiful, including the wonderful Guthries Tavern, which is the neighborhood church my aunt and uncle once belonged to.

Indeed, our family ties to this shady stretch of Addison Street, a block from the stadium, date back almost 100 years. My dad grew up here. Now I have two nieces moving in, joining a nephew living down the block.

It warms me to know they've embraced the old family precinct. In fact, one of the great developments of our lifetimes is the rebirth of the major American cities.

The twentysomethings are drawn to cities by the activity, the creativity, the affordability, the bars. They are also drawn to cities by the long lines, the difficulties, the tribal gatherings, the noise.

And by their own brazen beer smiles, like beacons in the night.

Do not become alarmed. That's just how they roll.

Extra peppers, extra beef. Extra everything.

Twitter: @erskinetimes