In You Were Never in Chicago, Neil Steinberg ponders the notion of connections in a city notorious for them.
Neil Steinberg clearly remembers the moment he truly felt like a Chicagoan. It wasn’t when he became a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, where he has been on staff for 25 years. It wasn’t when his younger son, Kent, threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. No, as he recounts in his new book, You Were Never in Chicago (The University of Chicago Press, $25), he knew he had finally arrived when he engaged in the time-honored Chicago tradition of pulling some strings and — poof! — landed the city’s most famous judge, Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, for his brother’s nuptials.
“Pulling that string made me feel I was in the action,” he tells American Way. “I was playing the Chicago game.”
After three decades on the Windy City beat, Steinberg has passed “Go” enough times to get the lay of the land. Like many of Chicago’s brightest luminaries — Michael Jordan, Al Capone and Oprah Winfrey, to name a few — he is a transplant, an Ohio native who came to the area for college and who has spent nearly all of his adult life there. Therefore, his connections were not a privileged birthright, as they are for ?natives; he had to earn them.
“What sets Chicago apart from other cities is that we’re proud of our favoritism,” he says. “We seem to tolerate it more than other cities. It’s how we function.”
Like Studs Terkel before him, Steinberg mixes memoir, history and travelogue in You Were Never in Chicago as he takes readers along on an engaging tour of the characters — and character — of his adopted city, past and present. There are passing glances of familiar pols, such as the mayors Daley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but Steinberg’s penchant for taking the narrative road less traveled means his roundup includes several unusual suspects as well. His chapter on Chicago factories long gone is particularly moving, a tribute to the fish deboners, butchers and small-business owners laboring in The City That Works.
“I think Chicago has always been somewhere that gives an extra measure of respect to effort and hard work and success,” he says. And if you happen to have a judge on speed dial, that doesn’t hurt either.