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The last time I went to Chicago I didn’t make it.  It was a very long time ago so some of the details are hazy, but I do remember driving through what seemed like a minefield of tornadoes touching down on either side of the road.  I had a hard time keeping the lightweight VW bus on the highway.  A friend and I had started a small video production company in the early days of portable videotape equipment.  It took us a long time to realize that neither of us was cut out to be an entrepreneur.  In the meantime, I convinced my partner that we should drive to Chicago to see the Consumer Electronics Show.  She recalls that we were driving my old Saab, but I can still feel the steering wheel of her big bus as I wrestled to keep it on the road.

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We had just hit the suburbs when the intimations of disaster really started to settle in. Tornadoes were one thing, riots were another.  The rain started coming down in buckets and the underpasses of the Dan Ryan Expressway were flooding.  What had been a steady stream of traffic came to a complete stop.  That was when our VW van died.

I got out, managed to push it over to the side and then tried to recall everything I knew about VW engines.  I made an attempt to dry the points, then clambered back inside.  My partner was struggling to stay calm.  She had been listening to the local radio station.  A stalled driver at the very next underpass had turned down the offer (or extortion) of a gang of toughs who planned to push his car through the underpass for $50.  He had refused.  They got into an argument.  The leader of the gang finally pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and killed the driver.  Wendy recalls it differently.  She maintains that gang leader asked the driver for his wallet, and when he refused, they shot his wife.  It was a horrific story, either way.  Wendy recalls asking me at the time what I would do and getting the wrong answer from me.  We didn’t have time to argue.

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It suddenly seemed imperative that we get off the Expressway.  I hit the ignition and miraculously the van started right up.  The next ramp was intended as an on-ramp for the Expressway but everyone was using it to escape.  At the very top, a small African-American boy was directing traffic.  Across the road, two cops were sitting in a squad car, listening to their radio.  My partner maintains that the cops were berating the kid for directing traffic, and the drivers were yelling at the cops, telling them to leave the boy alone.  He was doing a fine job.

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We drove until I felt it was safe enough to pull over and look at a map.  It was getting dark but everyone was out in the street.  It was two AM.  The neighborhood we had landed in was as different from our home base as Nairobi is from Oslo.  The engine stalled again.  We sat there and listened to the radio.  It sounded like the city of Chicago was in riot.  Sirens, gunfire.  I scrounged around looking for a flashlight to have a look at the map.  Was that safe?  It was a good time for levity but I’m no John Belushi.  We settled in for a nervous night until the van started up.

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Wendy says we drove out of Illinois and spent the night in Gary, Indiana.  She maintains that we came back the next day to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.  We wandered around looking for the Consumer Electronics Show for hours, until someone was kind enough to tell us it was happening the following weekend.  I don’t remember any of that but I trust her memory.  In which case, my lead line is a little erroneous, but not by much.

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The next morning we turned around and headed back to Iowa, a state full of cornfields and hogs north of Missouri, south of Minnesota.  Slightly dull, but safe, looking a lot like Kansas.

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It will come as no surprise that I was not enthusiastic at my wife’s suggestion that we attend an Alumni reunion of her old New York law firm in the city of Chicago.  The one and only time we had managed to attend a Cleary Gottlieb reunion was last year, in a city called Istanbul.  The timing of our gathering (or the riots) was unfortunate.  Our hotel was within walking distance of Taksim Square and we had not packed our gas masks.  You can read all about it in my post called: “Rihanna, Riots and the Istanbul Blues.”

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This event was small in scale, casual, convivial and calm.  Most Cleary alums were no doubt familiar with Paris on the Prairies, so the reunion attracted a handful of Americans from here and there, some die-hard Europeans, a lively young contingent of lawyers from Mexico, ex Cleary people based in Chicago and New Yorkers.

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We did a lot of walking, took in the wonderful Millennium Park, architectural tours, the Art Institute, landmark restaurants and a ball game at Wrigley Field as well as a Second City show.  We were entertained and enlightened by a local historian, who provided us with enough Chicago knowledge to pass for natives when we return.  The weather was glorious and the vibrant life in the city streets made it seem like Mardi Gras every single day.  All is forgiven, Chicago, Cleary.  We will return.

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Click on any one picture running alongside this post in the box called Flickr and you’ll be taken to my Flickr account— Red Flier where you can download any or all the pics from this trip.

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