Auntie Beff's Chicago: what's the matter with these kids?

Beth is all complaining about geographical references in The Time Traveler’s Wife (an excellent excellent novel, which I have said before and will say again). But as Beth doesn’t allow comments I have to challenge her on my own turf. Here goes.

Opening remarks: Cut the author some slack, will ya? You admit up front that she knows the city well. Maybe she used those verbal short cuts you mention in her original, but the editor was worried about confusing readers. Maybe she was trying for a different tone. And depending on the character you’re talking about — Claire isn’t a native.

1. Beth says: Nobody refers to it as “Lake Michigan”. It’s the lake.

I say: Nit nit nit pick pick pick. So yes, mostly people just call it the lake. Would somebody in Fairbanks Alaska be tuned into that? So they erred on the side of the non natives.

2. Beth says: The elevated trains throughout the city are rarely referred to as “the el”.

I say: Not true. This may be a generational thing, but I still call it the el, and so do my friends. In fact, I just called a friend and in a round about way brought up the subject, and she called it the el. Okay, so she’s my age, but she’s always lived in the city. And that Brown Line stuff? That’s relatively new. Old timers don’t use that. The Ravenswood line, the Evanston line. Sheesh. You kids with your innovations.

My versions: “Get off the el at Damen, and Sweet Occassions is right there and they have the best ice cream in the city.”

“I used to take the el to work everyday.”

Somebody who takes the train to work every day is somebody who is coming in from the suburbs.

The one point I’ll give Beth on this is that when they expanded the el service out to the airport, there was some confusion. Was it still the el, or was it now a train? My vote: outside the city, it’s a train. Inside, it’s the el.

3. Beth says: It’s the Aragon. And the Vic. Not the Aragon Ballroom and the Vic Theatre – unless you’re a news announcer or a poster for a concert or something. I mean sure, call it by its full name in the narrative the first time to let your reader know what it is – but never in dialog. Especially dialog among native Chicagoan music-lovers.

Okay, I’ll give her this point about dialog.

4. Beth says: Quit frikken giving me directions constantly. It’s very true that all people in this city are downright obsessed with giving directions –

Yes, we are. We are obsessed, and that’s why I loved this about the novel. Maybe it’s something they inject into kids born in the city limits, but I wanna know where I am and how I’m getting there. Don’t rain on my parade, okay?

One other point Beth raises, not in connection with the novel: Lake Shore Drive. Auntie Beff claims everybody drops the “drive” part. As in “I took Lake Shore up to Sheridan.” or “I had to get off Lake Shore at Irving Park because of some accident.” Mostly, Auntie Beff is right about this, but at one time people called it “the drive” as in “I took the drive up to Sheridan.” But even when I was a kid you heard that less.

One last thing, where Beth gets no argument from me: if you’re ever in Chicago and the weather is nice, the drive south on Lake Shore toward the Loop is pricelessly gorgeous.

7 Replies to “Auntie Beff's Chicago: what's the matter with these kids?”

  1. Hmph, I live with a former Chicagoite, and he calls it the el. (He’s constantly correcting me, since I’m used to the Metro, in DC; it took me three years to get used to calling the T in Boston anything other than The Subway. Sigh.)

    I’ve pondered similar questions given that my urban fantasy is squarely in the District. What’s common to a District-native is positively foreign to someone who only knows it as “the other Washington, y’know, the city.” It’s not “the capital” or “congress”; it’s simply “the Hill.” We’re not big on directions, other than to just give general regions, usually the same as the Metro stops: “over in Foggy Bottom,” or “up by U Street” or “once you get past L’Enfant Plaza”. The fact that there are two Seventh & E (one in Northwest, one in Northeast) bothers us none but drives visitors a little wonky, even though visitors should never be going near Northeast, anyway.

    For that matter, a long-time local doesn’t call it downtown, or the city, or even the District. It’s just “the town.” As in, “I’m heading into town this evening.” This is mostly because until about fifteen years ago, DC was about as big as your average shoebox, and had about as much life in it it, too. It’s only recently that it’s become anything like a metropolis, or that it’s begun to lose its Southern-influenced accent.

    I had been looking for an agent in DC, but there aren’t too many of them, so I’m now focusing on NYC agents. I can’t help but wonder, when I’m taken on, whether I’ll be told to spell things out, drop other comments, or get over my complaint that no, one can’t go from L’Enfant Plaza to Dupont Circle in only fifteen minutes on a Tuesday afternoon, by way of Chinatown.

    I’m sure only of two things: I’ll probably be asked to dumb down *something*, and that “something” will probably be the last thing I expect, like the agent or editor insisting that for the sake of the story, I should invent a bridge between the Key Bridge and the rt 66 bridge, or create a Metro stop in Georgetown instead of having characters get off at Rosslyn or Foggy Bottom and walk the two miles. Y’know, they created a Metro stop in Georgetown for “No Way Out” and the city folks are *still* making fun of that one.

    I suppose I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it.

    But I’m totally with you on the ‘el’ thing.

  2. I actually agree with Beth about the overattention to detail on Henry’s running route. I have no idea where these places are so to me it just sounds like she’s trying to prove that she does. It’s a fine line between authenticity and showing off, though, so who can blame her for falling onto the wrong side from time to time.

    I’ll veer off topic here (gee, how utterly unlike me) and say that I sort of envy people who live in places that give them a sort of recognizable regional cachet. I grew up, and still live, in the central California foothills. If I were (heaven forbid) to write a novel, and set it here, and give little details about locations, nobody would know what on earth I was talking about at any time, and (what’s worse) nobody would care. Don’t get me wrong, I love this place, as evidenced by the fact that I stay here when I have the freedom to move away to a place that would be both less expensive and more politically comfortable to me. It’s just a bit boring.

  3. HAH. I KNEW you’d have to answer in some way. How’d I know? Because the one things Chicagoans love as much and maybe more than talking about directions is talking about their city. Any excuse will do. I’ve never been in any other city so absolutely in love with itself. And I mean that in a GOOD way – Chicagoans love their city, as a whole: architecture and streets and parks and even little alleyways. Not in love with themselves, but in love with the city.

    The el thing – I think you’re right that it’s generational, for sre. But I also think the term is mostly used as a way to single it out from other trains. If I call the train itself “the el”, I’m either outside the city or talking to someone who’s not in the city. And it’s not MY fault you defected to some Pacificky place and aren’t around when the language changes to red line brown line blue line (soon to be a pink line), etc.

    I realized, too, that a really big part of the terminology depends on who you’re talking to. There’s a very strong divide between city and suburbs. I use different words when talking to someone lives in the burbs, even if that someone used to live in the city for like 50 years. Talking to them, I call it the el, and Lake Shore Drive. Talking to a fellow city-dweller, it’s the brown line and Lake Shore.

    But anyhoo, I only meant that it’s jarring to me, in the book. Not always, but sometimes. And nine times out of ten, the detail that irritates is a completely unnecessary one – which comes off as the author (or okay fine, maybe the editor) trying to prove something. It bugs me in the same way people just back from their vacation in Paris bug me when they start every sentence with “In France, blablabla…”

    Doesn’t at all keep me from enjoying the book. (And I thought of you when I passed the Lincoln Restaurant tonight, the church across the way festooned with Easter ribbons.)

  4. Oh, and:
    The one point I’ll give Beth on this is that when they expanded the el service out to the airport, there was some confusion. Was it still the el, or was it now a train? My vote: outside the city, it’s a train. Inside, it’s the el.

    See, I think it’s morphed into “the train” instead of “the el” for that reason, and ALSO because it is not elevated everywhere. A large section of the red and blue lines (and maybe others) are subways, and the brown line, at least, has several street-level stops. Since it’s only sometimes elevated, “the el” just doesn’t make as much sense. Maybe that’s why we all call them the el tracks when we’re talking about the ones aboveground, but they become just “the tracks” when they’re not up on stilts.

  5. I agree, people do call it Lake Michigan and while people do refer to the el’s stops, they do refer to it as the el as well. I also understand where Beth is coming from. When I read a book about my home of Detroit, I want it to have that authetic feel and sound.

    As for Chicago, it rocks, I love it!

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