From Sea to Shining Lake: Becoming a Midwesterner by Ann Walters

The hub of the universe. That’s what Bostonians call their city. They are surprised when others find this appellation arrogant, since they generally assume that people unfortunate enough to live elsewhere understand that their homes are located in inferior areas of the United States. Oliver Wendell Holmes first referred to Boston as the “hub”, although what he actually said was that the Massachusetts State House is the “hub of the solar system”. As if that weren’t hyperbole enough, Bostonians began calling their city the “hub of the universe”, and even installed a bronze plaque on the sidewalk on front of Filene’s department store stating that that very spot, at the corner of Washington and Summer Streets, is the absolute center of the hub of the universe.

I’m not technically a Bostonian — I was born in Salem, Massachusetts, about fifteen miles north of the city. To New Englanders, fifteen miles is a long way and may even require a pit stop for coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consider that the entire New Hampshire ocean coastline is only eighteen miles long, and that you can drive through the whole state of Rhode Island, from north to south, in less than an hour. Salem, which markets itself to tourists as “Witch City”, is the ancestral home of my father’s side of the family. We are proud to be descendants of accused witches. I say “accused” witches because of course these women weren’t really witches. It seems as though it should hardly be necessary to make that point, but apparently there are some people who really do believe in witches. “Double, double, toil and trouble . . . eye of newt and toe of frog,” and all that. I think these are the same people who don’t want their children to read Harry Potter.

Anyway, it turns out that Boston is not the hub of the universe; it’s the twenty-first largest city in the United States. I was shocked when I learned in high school that Memphis, Tennessee and Indianapolis, Indiana are larger cities. Indianapolis, I found, is even larger than San Francisco. When I was a child, my father — whose parents let him hitchhike across the United States when he was seventeen — told me that San Francisco was the only city worth its salt besides Boston, so I assumed that they were both at least in the top five. (My grandparents thought the hitchhiking trip were a grand adventure for their teenage son. They even took a picture of him and his best buddy with what they called “rucksacks” as they were getting ready to thumb their way west.)

My father returned safely from his cross-country trip, full of stories about being fired from a job in a leather tannery, damaging expensive equipment on a construction job site, and escaping from a moving motorcycle when it became clear that the driver’s intentions were unsavory. The next trip he took west was in a secondhand Volkswagen Beetle with a faulty transmission, which he drove to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a cousin’s wedding. He didn’t think much of Milwaukee, but he did find something of interest in that midwestern industrial city — my mother. They were married a couple of years later, and moved into an apartment on Stuart Street in Boston, in what was then called the Combat Zone.

Later, our family moved to Rhode Island, where a trained ear can pick up a slight variation in the regional accent. (Native Rhode Islanders refer to their state as “Ruh-Diland, and pronounce the word “mitten” in a distinctive manner I can’t describe on paper, but is recognizable to any Rhode Islander). My mother took my sister and me on a trip to Milwaukee every year, but my father rarely joined us, preferring to save his vacation days for more enjoyable trips. He always referred to the entire Midwest as “Milwaukee”, with no differentiation between, say, Michigan and Iowa. Any flat farming state in the middle of the country was “Milwaukee” to him.

I went to college in Boston and fell in love with a boy from Milwaukee. Jeff truly was from Milwaukee, having been born there, although he grew up in suburban Chicago. We got married the week after we graduated, with no jobs, no money, and sets of bone china and crystal for twelve. Where should we go? What should we do? It was 1982, and the unemployment rate was at an all-time high. The country was in the middle of a recession, which was a term I didn’t quite understand, since I’d been lucky to receive a C in Macroeconomics.

We assumed we’d stay in Boston, near our friends and my family. We typed up resumes and sent them, in the mail, with cover letters written according to the format suggested by the college’s career counseling office: “As a bright and ambitious college graduate with a degree in English, I have many talents to offer to your organization.” My husband received a phone call from Proctor and Gamble, inviting him to interview for a position as a junior sales trainee based in Des Moines, Iowa. My father was ecstatic at the thought of his son-in-law gainfully employed by a large corporation. “No,” I said. “We are not living in Des Moines. I don’t want to start out my adult life in Des Moines.” My father looked up Des Moines in the Encyclopedia Britannica. “It says here it’s built on seven hills, like Rome,” he said, with a hint of desperation his voice. “It’s not Rome, and I’m not living there,” I said. But the seed was sown — the Midwest might have more jobs than the East Coast. We packed our china, crystal, and interview outfits into the Ford Maverick and headed west.

“It’s just for a year,” I told everyone. “It’s a better job market in Chicago. We’ll work there for a year and get some experience, then we’ll be back.” We moved into the guest room in my in-laws’ house and headed straight to a place called the Murphy Employment Agency, where we were each assigned a counselor. Mine told me to go to Walgreens and buy lipstick — she even told me the color, Cherries in the Snow. I informed her that in Boston only old ladies wore lipstick and that I hadn’t even worn it on my wedding day. “Weren’t you in a sorority?” she asked. “No, we didn’t have them,” I told her. “Too bad, they provide such a good network,” she said. “We’ll see what we can do.”

Jeff’s counselor told him to buy Mennen Shave Talc and Hanes V-neck T-shirts, also right down the street at Walgreens. Were these people getting kickbacks from Walgreens? We did as we were told, and the very next day we were sent out on interviews. We put on our new cosmetic products and got on the commuter train to Chicago. I was amazed at the sheer size of the city. Would I ever find my way around? “Just remember, the lake is always east,” Jeff told me as he headed into an immense office building. East? What does that mean? No one in New England says “east” or “west”, because all the roads are winding.

Eventually, we both found terrific jobs. I was hired at an ad agency on Michigan Avenue and Jeff was hired at a bank in the Loop. When we weren’t working, we were exploring Chicago, socializing with our coworkers and falling in love with our new city. Thoughts of moving back to Boston disappeared from our minds. I had thought I’d miss the ocean, but every day when I saw the shimmering aquamarine waters of Lake Michigan, my soul felt restored just as it had when I looked at the salty gray waves of the Atlantic. I discovered all sorts of wonderful things I hadn’t expected — Stuart Brent’s little bookstore across the street from my office building, where I could spend my lunch hour either undisturbed or chatting with the venerable bookseller; tiny storefront theaters where we could buy tickets at the last minute and see new plays with talented actors; outdoor concerts in Grant Park and Ravinia, where we could split a bottle of wine and stretch out on a blanket under the stars on a deliciously hot and sticky night; world-class restaurants our parents could treat us to when they came to visit; cheap restaurants under the El tracks where we could bring some friends and a cooler of beer; the Lincoln Park Zoo, where we didn’t have to pay a dime to watch the gorillas eat breakfast; and of course, the stunning architecture everywhere we turned, which revealed surprising details when we lifted our eyes toward the sky.

Chicago weather, of course, is nothing to brag about, but people who care much about weather mystify me. I mean, if you’re a farmer, or a construction worker, weather is important. But for all of us who toil at desks, what difference does weather really make? I actually prefer bad weather, maybe because good weather puts too much pressure on me. When you’ve grown up in a harsh climate, you feel compelled to enjoy every minute of the rare beautiful days you’re given. For those of us who like to hibernate, beautiful sunny days cause some anxiety. I must get out! I think. I must take a long walk. I need to work in the yard — when really, what I’d like to do is bake some cookies, or write in my journal, or even clean a closet. And always, I’d rather read a book. What’s better than a warm, rainy day, when I can sit on my screened porch reading and listening to the rain hammer the roof? Except maybe a snowy day with a fire burning and a pot of fragrant soup simmering on the stove.

We raised our children just a couple of blocks from the beach, in a little village thirty-five miles north of the city — a village that Coastal Living magazine recently named #4 in a list of “America’s Happiest Seaside Towns”, smack-dab between Sausalito, California (#3) and Tiburon, California (#5). Maybe the magazine’s editors believe, along with some geologists, that Lake Michigan is an inland sea? Our children walked or biked everywhere — to school, friends’ houses, Little League practice, the library, and the corner store. Visitors to our town often remark on how “New Englandy” it is, which strikes me as sort of a backhanded compliment, implying that New England sets the standard for small-town quaintness.

I’m embarrassed that as a long-time resident of the “Land of Lincoln”, I’ve never visited Springfield and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum — especially since a friend who grew up in our state’s capital tells me that the city’s local delicacy, the horseshoe sandwich, is worth the drive from Chicago. (And I love the fact that a small version of this sandwich is called a pony shoe.) I have visited the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, which is exactly what its name implies — an entire bookstore devoted to “Lincolniana”.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem to welcome the founding members of the new Chicago Commercial Club to Boston in 1879. This club, formed several years after the Great Chicago Fire, was instrumental in developing Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. The poem is a charming bit of doggerel, starting with the lines “Chicago sounds rough to the maker of verse;/One comfort you have —Cincinnati sounds worse” and going on to rhyme “voice” with “Illinois” and “Michigan” with “span”. Holmes pokes fun at his own coinage of “hub of the universe”, saying to his Chicago visitors: “You have seen our gilt dome, and no doubt you’ve been told/That the orbs of the universe round it are rolled, /But I’ll own it to you — and I ought to know best —/That this isn’t quite true of all stars in the west.” This Massachusetts native agrees.


Ann Walters is a veteran bookseller at an independent bookstore in the northern suburbs of Chicago, where the pay is low but the free books and companionship of fellow bibliophiles are plentiful. She writes a blog, Books on the Table, takes creative writing classes, and belongs to too many book clubs.