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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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Twenty years ago my wife worked for a law firm in New York that considered itself the best on Wall Street. It was not an immodest boast. When we set up house together, I quickly learned that the kind of work she did involved a lot of partners, a few of whom seemed to be glued together with high stress fractures showing. She told me that they were under a lot of pressure. One mistake could mean millions.

Her job, as an associate, was to do whatever the partners thought needed doing and make sure the “deals” went smoothly. There were days she went to work and didn’t come home at all. I knew she was at the printer, tortuously reading the proof of some prospectus letter by letter. I never harbored any feelings of jealousy because I knew that for the partners, work was sex.

During the time that we were together in the Big Apple, I created pictures in my mind that took the place of those elusive personalities known as “partners.” At the time, with very few exceptions, they came in only one color and one sex. Suffice it to say, I could pass. They were smart, driven and sometimes very, very demanding. But they called the shots and made the critical decision that determined upward mobility. “Making partner,” becoming one of the anointed, was the whole point.

From the outside, it looked to me like the partners were wage slaves as much as anyone else. It’s just that the wages were very high. My wife insists that this is far too simplistic. But, to me they were phantoms, brilliant workaholics who were aging prematurely, and heading for early graves.

My wife and I were not yet married at that time. I don’t know what we called each other, but it was certainly not partner. Probably something along the lines of “significant other,” that absurd term of endearment that must have been dreamt up by a pop psychologist for a T.V. interview. Partners were other people.

Not long ago we attended a reunion for the alumni of that law firm. It was held in one of the cavernous halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A full-size reproduction of a blue whale hung overhead and it did not seem disproportionally large in that room. We had booked into a shabby hotel off Union Square that catered to merchant sailors. We were downwardly mobile.

Since the event was black tie, I threw a raincoat over my tux to sneak out of the hotel inconspicuously. It had been awhile since my wife worked in New York and there were a lot of new faces. The photographer who was taking pictures may well have thought i was the illustrious partner, my wife the insignificant spouse. There were hundreds of handsome lawyers milling about like penguins underneath the giant whale with glittering spouses and others at their sides. The food and drink were fine and we enjoyed the evening.

the Wall Street

Little did we know that we would soon be heading down under, to partner land. In this sunburnt country the designations common to North American English do not apply. For some unfathomable reason, no one is known as husband, wife, fiancee, live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, spouse or significant other. Exes do exist. As if by common agreement, Aussies seem to insist that everyone you live with in some romantic relationship is a “partner.”

According to my pocket Oxford Australian dictionary, a partner is 1) one of a pair of people who do something together, 2) either member of a pair of a married or unmarried couple. I am dying to know how this peculiarity came about. If any of my Australian readers can enlighten me, please do.

As usual, your faithful correspondent remains completely in the dark. But he’s a happily married husband all the same.

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