I’m not physically capable of driving anywhere near Chicago without driving into it. I just can’t bring myself to depress the accelerator and keep going past, even if the city is 500 miles to the north. Those of you on the coasts who have never been there have no idea. Unless you live in New York, Chicago is better than your city. Sorry, that’s just how it is.
So I was in Louisville, Kentucky. Right across the river from downtown is Indiana — not an exciting state, but some of Chicago’s suburbs (the grim ones that Chicago doesn’t want anyway) spill over into it. By my way of thinking I was already right next to Chicago! So I crossed the river, formally left the South, and entered what is technically and geographically the Midwest.
Indiana may be physically in the North, but it is kind of, culturally, a Southern state. Internal migration patterns long ago brought Southerners north into the plains. So you’ll hear lots of Southern accents in South Indiana, even though the state is ostensibly Northern and Midwestern. This partly explains, perhaps, why Indiana is a conservative “red state” while other Midwestern states on the Great Lakes are more liberal, “blue,” and Democratic.
I found evidence of Indiana’s unofficial Southernness even at a rest stop on the Interstate. Three flags flew from the pole: the American flag, the state flag, and the Vietnam “Prisoners of War” banner that I otherwise saw only in Southern states (and also in Missouri which, like Indiana, is sort of Northern and also sort of Southern.)
There isn’t much to see from the Interstate. Just pavement, trees, and traffic, the same as on just about every other Interstate freeway in the eastern part of the country.
Because Indiana is the Midwest, though, (sort of) there also were wheat and corn fields.
The freeway took me through Indianapolis. I’ve heard the city is nicer than it used to be. Lots of American cities are nicer than they used to be now. So I was slightly curious about what kind of urban renewal has taken place.
But I didn’t stop. Indianapolis can’t compete with Chicago for my time and attention. Sorry Indiana! It’s nothing personal.
They say every state in America has a city names Springfield. (Does that include Hawaii? Somehow I doubt it.) You know what else pretty much every state has? Every state, or so it appears, has a small town somewhere named Lebanon.
I don’t know what’s up with that. There are more Lebanese in America than there are in Lebanon. There are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon. Lebanese, as the Perpetual Refugee used to put it, are masters of voyage. Like Indians and Chinese, they’re pretty much everywhere. But they’re urban, for the most part. They are traders and businessmen and restauranteurs. They didn’t move to America to get into farming. So I suspect all of America’s Lebanons were named thusly because Lebanon is a Biblical place. (Jesus turned water into wine at Israel’s favorite target village of Qana.) I doubt you’ll find many Lebanese-Americans in America’s little Lebanons.
Below is a picture of Lebanon, Indiana. It isn’t exactly Beirut when it comes to fun, exotic, and charming. But hey, at least no Hezbollah!
Like I said, Indians are pretty much everywhere. The guy who owns the gas station (complete with a bail bonds office in back) spoke English with an Indian accent. All the other customers in the store spoke English with a Southern rather than the flat Midwestern accent. How weird is it that an Indian moves to small-town America and helps bail out the local yokels who find themselves in the clink?
You won’t find Lebanese (I don’t think) in Lebanon, Indiana. But you will find at least some in Northern Indiana on the shore of Lake Michigan.
I stopped to pick up Charles Malik (formerly known as Lebanon.Profile at the Lebanese Political Journal) who is temporarily staying at his parents’ house in Chicago’s eastern suburbs. He was more or less driven out of Beirut during Israel’s war against Hezbollah. He’s marooned there for the time being until he figures out what to do next, stuck in one of Indiana’s nicer ‘burbs with no social life and a gigantic phone bill. Poor Charles. You can see the faint skyline of Chicago from the deck of his house.
But he does not own a car. So the city of fun and light is close enough to see but just far enough away to be unreachable. So I picked his refugee ass up and took him to town.
He, or least his parents, lives in a nice place, though, right on the lake next to the beach and some sand dunes.
Most of Northern Indiana in the region next to Chicago is industial. But Indiana has some nice beaches, too. If you squint you can pretend you’re on actual coastline.
Charles made fun of his mother in the kitchen and said “Leave it to an Arab to move to Indiana and buy a house on top of the only sand dunes in the Midwest.” (Nevermind that there aren’t any sand dunes in Lebanon.) He also made fun of his mother (behind her back) for her large signed portraits of Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) and George W. Bush (R-America). “Just like a Middle Easterner, hanging up portraits of the Leader in the living room.”)
His mother may be American. But she also is Lebanese. Old world habits die hard — she kept pushing food on me. She insisted we stay for dinner and gave me a five-pound bag of pastries, apples, and pomegranite juice to take with me in the car as I drove west toward home.
Charles and I did not stay for dinner. We piled into the car and took the Chicago Skyway into the heart of the city, which is great fun to drive on if there isn’t very much traffic. You soar over the lake and the city below in the plains. And when you enter Chicago from Indiana the sign says “Welcome to Chicago.” Not “Welcome to Illinois.” Welcome to Chicago. Greater Chicago, or “Chicagoland” as the locals like to call it, is practically a city-state unto itself, a spectacular cosmopolitan megalopolis that only accidentally happens to exist in the Midwest surrounded by farmers and cornfields.
He took me out to dinner at a restaurant called Avec near the Greek neighborhoods just west of downtown. We ate duck, pork shoulder, and dates stuffed with sausage. (The last may sound bizarre, but it was fanstastic.)
Avec is one of those restaurants where everyone sits together, which encourages socialization at dinner with strangers.
Then we drove downtown at night and walked around so I could take night shots of the city. You see that building pictured below, the one with the top that’s shaped like a diamond? Although you can’t make it out in the photo, the words “Think Pink” were lit up inside. The diamond, you see, represents a vagina, supposedly as a counterweight to the hundreds of “phallic” skyscrapers that make up the city.
Chicago is truly an architectural wonderland, possibly the most aesthetically spectacular skyscraper city on Earth.
I could spend a week photographing the city and never get bored.
We later ended up at a bar in the bohemian Wicker Park neighborhood. I like Wicker Park. It reminds me of the fun hipster neighborhoods of Portland and Seattle.
Later that night a storm blew over the lake. Here’s what it looked like on the south shore along Indiana, lightning on the right and the lights of Chicago on the left.