Monday, November 08, 2010

Location, Location, Location



by Michael Wiley


We're always happy to have a present or former Chicago guy guest post on the Oufit -- especially one who still writes about Chicago -- and Michael Wiley fits the bill.
Michael writes the award-winning Joe Kozmarski P.I. series, including the Shamus-nominated The Last Striptease (winner of the PWA/SMP “Best First” competition) and, most recently, The Bad Kitty Lounge. St. Martin’s Minotaur will release A Bad Night’s Sleep in June, 2011. Booklist has described Michael’s mysteries as “melancholic” and “howlingly funny,” a combination that sort of scares him. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and – whenever he can – Chicago. You can visit him at www.michaelwileyonline.com.


Where the hell am I? And what am I doing here? Although I grew up in Chicago, I’ve spent only three of the past twenty-two years there. The first seven years, I lived in Manhattan, and the past twelve I’ve been in the Deep South, in Jacksonville, Florida.

But my time away hasn’t changed my geographical orientation. You can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy – or something like that – and so, I think of myself as a Chicago writer. I set my Joe Kozmarski mysteries there under the El tracks, on the lakefront after dark, and in the shadows of buildings that line the streets in Ravenswood, Pilsen, Little Vietnam, and the Loop. If someone forced ruby slippers onto my feet and clicked my heels, I’m pretty sure I know where I would land.


Still, there are benefits to living in Jacksonville while writing about Chicago. Jacksonville has features that put Chicago in perspective. We’ll never be sister cities – the physical resemblances end with the brown rivers that cut through both – but Jacksonville speaks about Chicago from across the divide. Here are some of the features of this town that have taught me about Chicago:

1. Jacksonville has manatees. My family lives across the street from a lake that connects by a canal to the St. Johns River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and every few months a group of manatees swims in for a day or two to feed on the grass that grows on the banks.


They look like gigantic sea slugs (cute ones), though up until the end of the eighteenth century sailors called them sea cows and swore that their meat tasted like beef. The same sailors apparently also mistook the oversized sea slugs for mermaids, though, so the information may not be reliable.

After one up-close encounter with these strange, mostly stupid animals, nothing that Chicago politics offers looks odd anymore. If manatees had hair, they definitely would style it like Rod Blagojevich’s.

2. We also have hurricanes and alligators
. Also snakes. And tornadoes and very large cockroaches. Manatees are cute and stupid – more harmed than harmful – but in general if you ignore nature here, it will bite you in the ass. And then it will eat the rest of you and start looking for your family.

Chicago – with its big shoulders and its steel and concrete – looks and feels too solid and strong ever to break, as do the people who run the city, but life in Florida demonstrates that sooner or later everything and everyone can and will fall.

3. Racial politics in Jacksonville are . . . complicated. In Song of Solomon, one of Toni Morrison’s characters calls Jacksonville “Bad, bad country” because of its overt institutionalized racism. As if to confirm the assessment, in the first week after I moved here, a pickup passed me with a bumper sticker that said, “If I’d known it was going to end up like this, I would have picked my own damn cotton.”

But I quickly learned that while racism remains strong in some people, racial relations are as complex here as in any other place I’ve lived or visited – tied into personal and group histories, inseparable from economics, the product and the cause of confused communications: in other words, a mess most of the time, but an interesting mess out of which some good occasionally rises.

I can’t say that living here has given me a perfectly clear perspective on racial relations in Chicago, but it has taught me a lot about the North, the South, and the spaces in between.

4. Jacksonville is the Murder Capital of Florida. As everyone north of the Florida-Georgia border knows, Florida is full of lunatics who kill each other, chop up the bodies, and feed the pieces to their pet alligators. Having lived here for twelve years, I can say that this is true.

But Jacksonville enjoys the additional distinction of being the city with the highest per capita murder rate for ten years running. For residents, this situation pretty much sucks. For a Chicago crime writer, though, there’s always plenty of material. I simply remove the alligators from the news accounts, transplant the crimes a thousand miles to the north, and I have a book.

5. We have swamps. Lots of them. We call them wetlands and we recognize their environmental importance, but then we turn them over to developers more or less for the asking. This city wears the bones of power – political and financial – like an exoskeleton.

Sound familiar?

But Jacksonville’s relatively small size – one million residents to Chicago’s roughly three million – allows for a close-up understanding of the way things work.

And, often enough, the way things work here looks enough like the way things work in The City that Works that I can carry the lessons north – except when a manatee or an alligator rears its ugly head.

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