The days are longer. Atypical languages like Italian are heard on trains. Selfie sticks are extended at an exacerbated rate on downtown bridges and the City Winery location on the Riverwalk has clear, plastic geodesic domes for rent so people can sip wine at sunset without freezing their jacquard knit popovers off.
The tourists are coming.
Now, I make a portion of my living off the tourist trade, and I frankly love it. There’s nothing more refreshing than meeting people from around the world who want to dig into and explore a new community.
And there’s nothing worse than Ferris Bueller.
The film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) is the tale of a magical white boy who daytrips to Chicago and does whatever he wants, to the applause and love of all those caught in his wake, besting every service industry worker and local educator who opposes his joy. The vision of a vest-wearing suburbanite leading an army of authenticity-bestowing people of color in a spontaneous choreographed rendition of “Twist and Shout” is to the jackass tourist what the image of the Holy Grail was to Arthur of the Round Table. Sought after, quested, never reached.
In short, Chicago knows how to Chicago better than you do. We welcome you to the City That Hustles, but here are my tips for non-jerk tourism:
Show respect — I’m not saying don’t have spirited debate with Chicagoans about issues of note. I’m saying everyone will think you’re a jerk if you show up and tell people their local traditions, cultures, beliefs and actions are dumb. The New Yorker who casually drops how cheap, pastoral and relaxed everything is here comes off as condescending as the rural resident who makes an exasperated point of every bit of garbage, crime, car exhaust, cost and noise.
Ask questions — Chicago’s a weird combination of big city asshole and Midwest nice. But everybody likes the feeling of deference, like someone is turning to their greater wisdom. Not sure what this weird “Malört” thing is that people keep talking about? Ask someone about it. They might buy you a shot. If they do, down it quick and I am so, so sorry.
Err on the side of caution in terms of photography and video — That cute bungalow with the light hitting it just so is someone’s house where they keep their, like, children and stuff. They might not want their home shared online as your vacation memories. If you’re on the fence about whether something’s OK to shoot, go with no. You might just have to have an experience that hasn’t been catalogued, charted and quantified for your Instagram followers.
- Trust but verify — Everyone’s grandma drank with Al Capone, everyone saw Liz Phair at some little club before she made it big, everyone got headbutted by Wesley Willis, got community organized by Barack Obama, hung out with Bill Murray and got a high five from Michael Jordan or a high four-and-a-half from Rahm. Every old bar was a Prohibition speakeasy and every lakefront highrise used to count Oprah as a tenant. Many if not most local stories are either direct lies or have been exaggerated so much through the years that they might as well be. This goes double for that liar’s industry, tourism. Enjoy the nice yarn, then when you’re home for the night, pull out your phone to look up what actually happened, ideally from primary sources that haven’t been honed and perfected into a swell, folksy tale. The reality won’t be nice and pat with good punchline finishes as the tale presented, but at least it will be… real.
- Be safe — Not every Chicagoan is there to be your tour guide. Exercise caution, particularly if you are a woman, gay, trans or a person of color. Chicago can be a beautiful city. It can also be violent, racist and fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Explore, but do it smart. Take friends, go in daylight, trust your gut. If you are a CIS white tourist here to Ferris the city, remember you’re taking your social cues from a movie where the only people of color were either dancing to magic white boy music or stealing Cameron’s dad’s car. Hell, I’m a CIS white out-of-towner and I want to punch you too.
- Cut the crap — Capone was a racist thug, deep dish pizza’s a weird fat cheese pie for the tourists, no one gets a vote on whether you put ketchup on your hot dogs but you, only tourists, WBEZ employees and teenagers without fake IDs go to Navy Pier and nothing, I repeat, nothing is haunted. That said, the best deep dish is at Pequod’s, Italian beef’s a better Chicago food, the libraries are pretty wonderful, the lakefront is a treasure and almost all the good stuff’s in the neighborhoods. There’s Chicago and there’s Chicagoana. The former’s better.
Now get out there and explore.