How They See Us – 1966 Edition

I recently picked up a copy of One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966) — one of the classic Travis McGee detective novels by John D. MacDonald. McGee’s normal setting is South Florida, but in this one he travels to Chicago to help out an old friend. McGee is… not really a fan of our fair city:

I went out and walked south on Michigan Avenue. In nice weekend weather it is one of the specialties of the house. Chicago is a strange one. It is not on my list of favorite places. Insofar as restaurants and lounges and hotels are concerned it is strictly hinterland, strictly hick. And as you go down the scale it becomes more shabby and shoddy than rough. I do not know why anyone should expect anything special in that line from a place where the Hefner Empire seems to represent some sort of acme of sophistication, based as it is upon fantastic centerfold mammalians for the pimpled self-lovers, upon a chain of bunny-warrens styled to make the middle—class sales manager feel like a member of an in—group, and upon a laborious philosophical discourse which runs interminably in the ad—happy magazine and in the polysyllabic style of the pseudo—educated, carrying the deathless message that it is healthy to screw and run if everybody is terribly sincere about it.

A great university they have indeed, but if you take a train there from the center of the city, you pass through whole areas of the South Side which make the worst of Harlem look like Scarsdale. It is a gigantic shameful tinderbox everybody is trying not to notice. If you are a stranger and want to leave the university area after dark, they insist on getting you a cab.

The best of Chicago, I think, must go on quite privately, and it must be very fine indeed. Private homes and private clubs, and a lot of insulation and discretion, because as I hiked along Michigan I saw and admired what I had come to see, strolling, window-shopping flocks of women of that inimitable smartness, style, loveliness, assurance, and aroma of money which will make headwaiters and captains all over the Western world leap, beaming, to to hook their velvet ropes before they even hear the name. I feel that they live in Chicago in very much the same spirit the early settlers lived in the wilderness full of Indians. They keep the big gates closed. They consort with each other, and they import those specialties their rude environment cannot supply, and when they need relief from that nerve—twanging combination of unending drabness and glittering boosterism, they take their ease at the truly smart spots of the world and, when asked where they are from, tell the truth with that mocking inverted pride of the fellow pinned to the sod with a spear who said it only hurt when he laughed.

Statistically, it probably the one city in the world where the most people have been killed in arguments over professional athletes. The middle of the city, where nine bridges cross a large sewage canal called the Chicago River, is beginning to look as if Martians has designed it. For untold years the city has limped along under what might well be the most arrogant, ruthless, and total political control in the country. In a kind of constant hysterical spasm of self-distate, the city uglifies itself further each year by chopping away more trees and paving more areas for all those thousands of drivers who seem to have learned their art at Daytona.

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