Returning from Palo Alto a few weeks ago, as our plane was about to land at O'Hare, I gazed down at the gray, snow-covered landing field, and braced myself for more of the grim gulagian Chicago winter. The weather in northern California had been in the mid-60s, the skies unfailingly blue and sunny, and, to use the words with which Bishop Hebert ended his poem on Ceylon, "only man was vile." What, I asked myself, am I doing here?
The answer is not that I don't know any better but that I can't think of any place better. I do not yearn for what are called sunnier climes. Arizona is not a real possibility for me. My friend Robert Nisbet, the sociologist and a Californian most of his life, in his 60s accepted a job at the University of Arizona, built a grand new house there, and after a few years was driven bonkers by the relentless sameness of sunny day after sunny day, and promptly packed up and moved to Manhattan.
I have had short holidays on both coasts of Florida, the Gentile west (Sanibel Island) and the Jewish east (Boca Raton), and in true Judeo-Christian spirit--who are these Judeos, anyway?--found each equally boring. In Florida I saw too many well-dressed older men with funny walks carrying the remainder of their breakfasts in Styrofoam boxes out of restaurants. I don't like to be around so many old people. If I want to look at old people, I have my bathroom mirror. No, Florida, clearly, is not the answer.
But what, as Gertrude Stein is supposed to have said on her deathbed, is the question? The question is, Why should I, a man of many winters, spend yet another one in Muscovite-like Chicago, walking the streets as I do encased in down, wool, leather, fleece, and rubber, trudging along, the roses quite gone from my already sunken cheeks?
The answer is, I like it here. I even secretly believe that undergoing a good spell of rotten weather builds character, if only by teaching how little nature cares about us pathetic humans. "Want to help the environment?" young people on neighborhood street corners with petitions in hand not infrequently ask me. "Why?" I answer. "What did the environment ever do for me?"
I grew up in this wretched climate. So did my mother; and my father, a Montrealer, grew up in an even worse climate. The weather was not a subject much up for discussion in our household. Complaining about it was inadmissible. The weather was what it was, an unalterable given--case closed. "Cold enough for you?" my mother, normally a kindly and always a gracious woman, would sometimes ask, not much sympathy in her voice. The assumption behind the question was, stick around, it's likely to get colder still.
False memory perhaps heightens the coldness of the winters of my youth. I seem to remember winter winds that felt like a slap in the face; not an ordinary slap, either, but the kind that follows a deep insult to one's integrity. I spent a lot of time during those years waiting, in full shiver, on street corners for buses. Under the delusion that I cut a handsomer figure without a lot of extra clothes, I went about in a leather jacket--no hat, no gloves--through most of my high-school winters. I'm lucky I still have both ears and all my toes. Vanity thy name is adolescence.
Vanity has now been replaced by caution. Harsh wintry days suddenly daunt me. I have to work up a bit of courage to go out into them. I leave my apartment as if I'm about to ride through the Eskimo equivalent of Apache territory. The thought of the lengthiness of winter depresses, if ever so slightly, even though Chicago winters are shorter than those in Buffalo, which can, I'm told, run to five-month stretches. (In one of his novels, the fine Indian novelist R.K. Narayan remarks, of a town in southern India, that "eight months of the year the weather is impossible, and during the other four it is worse.") Still, I would rather be here in Chicago, wading through gray slush, than in Scottsdale, Arizona, in a Fila running suit jogging among cacti.
As the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, when recruiting scholars and scientists for the school, used to tell them, with the hauteur that came so easily to him: "Really you must come to Chicago. The population hereabouts isn't all that interesting. The social life is practically nil. The city's cultural institutions are few. The weather of course is miserable. You'll get so much work done."
The old boy was on to something. Heaven for climate, a character in a James Barrie play says, hell for conversation. But for getting work done through gray winters Chicago can't be beat.