Chicago Riffs

I am headed home to Washington after an afternoon in Chicago. It should have been a full day, but that’s the price of traveling between Washington and Chicago by train. The Amtrak timetable is to be taken with as much salt as Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s protestations that he did not try to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder.

I was supposed to get in around eight for a morning of meetings. I would then give a talk at the Kellogg School of Management on how we are using 2010 to brand South Africa. The train pulled in at two, which pared my agenda to 90 minutes of trying not to mislead a classroom of bushy-tailed MBA candidates too grossly.

Remember Lauren Bacall’s instructions on how to whistle? You just put your lips together and blow, she advised Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not.  Her advice came to me when the sleeping car attendant explained why we would be six hours late. The train’s whistle had frozen at some point in the middle of the night. By law, American trains that can’t whistle properly to warn of their approach can’t run. No amount of coaxing could elicit a federally-approved note from our engine.

If it’s not one thing holding up an Amtrak train, it’s another; on this journey it was both.  Spirits apparently got a little high in the cheap seats within an hour of our leaving Washington’s Union Station.  Police were waiting with manacles at the first three stops, two of them unscheduled, all lengthy.  And yet this was not England and our destination was not a soccer match.

A trip to Chicago by rail has never, for me, been without interest. The first time I did it was to interview Christie Hefner, daughter of Hugh, the pyjamaed one who pioneered the plasticization of women. That was in the days when a company called TML published this newspaper and thought it would be neat, as mores loosened in the run-up to democracy, to own the local Playboy franchise. The editor of South Africa’s first nudie book, as I recall, was Jeremy Gordin, now Jacob Zuma’s Boswell.

My next ride didn’t get me all the way to Chicago. I alighted a couple of stops early at South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame, a fine university and in 1991 the scene of a remarkable encounter between if not the captains  then at least assorted subalterns of American industry and Trevor Manuel, leather-jacketed, tieless, exactly what central casting would have sent over if asked for a rad.

Few, least of all myself, took Manuel’s measure accurately on that occasion. He was pretty scary. I can’t recall anyone saying “in 15 or so years’ time, this will be the most respected finance minister of his generation”.  Actually, no one was even certain how to spell his name. The opposite of automatic or as in “Oh Come, Oh Come Im…”?

Manuel’s measure was hard to take. South Africa’s measure continues to be hard to take. Too much about her, if often seems, requires too much explaining. That’s when it helps to come back to Chicago, in particular to the Chicago evoked by its greatest poet, Carl Sandburg, in his greatest poem:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I

have seen your painted women under the gas lamps

luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it

is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to

kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the

faces of women and children I have seen the marks

of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who

sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer

and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing

so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning…a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.


I can and do say the same about South Africa, with conviction.

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