Bourdain on Chicago: ‘You could be nowhere else’

(CNN)I spend a lot of my life — maybe even most of my life these days — in hotels.

And it can be a grim and dispiriting feeling, waking up, at first unsure of where you are, what language they’re speaking outside.


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The room looks much the same as other rooms. TV. Coffeemaker on the desk. Complimentary fruit basket rotting on the table. The familiar suitcase.
All too often, particularly in America, I’ll walk to the window and draw back the curtains, looking to remind myself where I might be — and it doesn’t help at all.
The featureless, anonymous skyline that greets me is much the same as the previous city’s and the city before that.
This is not a problem in Chicago.
You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else.
You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered mother****in’ city.



    Chicago’s funny side



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If you’re gonna cry that I “missed” an iconic feature of Chicago life — or that there are better Italian restaurants than Topo Gigio, then you missed the point and can move right on over to Travel Channel where somebody is pretending to like deep-dish pizza right now.
This is a show that grew out of my interest and affection for the Ale House in Chicago’s Old Town, and its proprietor, Bruce Cameron Elliott.
Ever since reading on the Twitter feed of the late great Roger Ebert that he read Bruce’s blog “Geriatric Genius” every day, I have followed it faithfully.
In fact, I went back years, tracking previous entries. It is in total a breathtaking work, encompassing the daily lives (and deaths) and misadventures of the Ale House clientele — many of whom, I think it is fair to say, are heavy drinkers.
Though cranky, occasionally pugilistic, opinionated, politically incorrect, sexually crude and an awful speller, Bruce has, without judgment, chronicled the trajectories of a spellbinding array of characters.
Whole lives pass, his characters rise and fall — and literally fall apart — as with one character, “Ruben 9 Toes,” who then went on to become “Ruben 8 Toes” then “4 Toes” before dying last year.
Bruce’s closest associate, Street Jimmy, is a crackhead who’s lived on the streets of Chicago (no small feat) for over a decade — and his Greek chorus of bar regulars offer a perspective on Chicago that I thought deserved highlighting.
We visit with hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco and his extraordinary family, with chef Stephanie Izard, legendary producer Steve Albini and others.
But the beating heart of this show is the Ale House and its resident artist (Bruce’s paintings of his customers, living and dead, as well as his portraits of politicians of both parties — often depicted being penetrated inappropriately — are world-famous).
I urge you to visit his blog. And to start a few years back.

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