Local Color: The Irish Problem | Essay | Chicago Reader

Local Color: The Irish Problem 

You can't go anywhere in Chicago without running into someone who went to Notre Dame. The social life of our city is being taken over by people who call themselves Domers.

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We went to my cousin's wedding the other day, and as we might have predicted, Paul was there. Paul is always there. He turns up at every social event I go to, or if not him, someone who knows him. This is not in itself a great feat, because Paul knows everybody. They went to college with him, or they live in his building, or they've sailed on his boat. Walk 50 feet down the street with him in downtown Chicago and some long-lost friend is sure to hail him and come over to talk. Paul attributes it to his charm and good looks. I attribute it to the fact that he went to Notre Dame.

The centrality of Notre Dame in the social life of Chicago is something you can't properly appreciate until you have had a chance to study the matter awhile. I suppose this is because, thanks to Knute Rockne, All American and televised college football, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Notre Dame is a local institution. Notre Dame, when I was very young, seemed unapproachably remote, like Mount Everest or the New York Yankees. It was not something that might touch one's own life. It was Out There.

In college, of course, I had a different perspective. Notre Dame had gone from Out There to Down There, without any intervening period of mere Thereness. Notre Dame was so . . . so common. Jocks went there. I went instead to a place that made me feel inexpressibly superior: Northwestern. (I know, I know, but I was young. Besides, I had enrolled in the journalism school, which, if it was resting on its laurels at the time, at least had laurels to rest on.)

Whatever doubts we Northwestern students came to have about our alma mater, however, there was one rock of certainty in our lives: we felt indisputably entitled to look down on everyone else in the vicinity. Loyola was a commuter school. DePaul was blue-collar. Circle seemed the product of some massive cultural-exchange program with the third world, And the University of Chicago appeared to be some kind of neurotic monastery--the first time I visited the dorms there I saw the words "Poverty, Chastity, Obedience" chalked over one of the doors.

As for Notre Dame . . . well, we did not know much about Notre Dame, but what we did know we didn't like. Notre Dame kids were the kind who, if they stopped over at your house when there was some sort of family gathering, would talk to your relatives. If Eddie Haskell had gone to college, we were pretty sure we knew where.

But you couldn't escape the place. A judge (later convicted in the Greylord scandal) lived across the street from my parents. As a Democratic potentate he was obliged to have political gatherings at his home from time to time, and one summer, for some unaccountable reason, this entailed hiring bagpipers to serenade the guests. The bagpipes were ghastly enough, but the pipers also insisted on playing the Notre Dame fight song. Believe me when I tell you this: God did not intend the Notre Dame fight song to be played on bagpipes. For one thing, there was an absence of certain strategic notes. The pipers knew this but did not care. They would muscle through the song as best they could, and when they got to where the missing notes were supposed to be, they threw in the nearest thing available and hoped for the best. The result was enough to give you spinal meningitis. They kept this up all afternoon. I grew to hate Notre Dame with a seething passion.

But you did have to give Notre Dame credit for a few things. They were said to throw great parties, which was more than you could say for Northwestern. "They'd get these beer trucks with spigots on the side," a survivor of one campus bash recalls. "At last call they'd line up rows of beers on the curb so they could go on drinking till sunrise."

They seemed to be the most social people on earth, and they kept on that way after graduation. Every spring, diplomas in hand, huge clumps of them would drift up to Chicago like seaweed. They would get jobs with big companies, organize parties, and hang out together. Many of them wound up living downtown, where they populated all the bars. They would virtually take over entire apartment buildings, which they laughingly referred to as dorms. If you had to move or paint your apartment, you could go down the hall and round up ten guys and be done in time to get to the Cubs game. It was like belonging to a giant floating fraternity. Never mind the Sears Tower--I have often thought that if they ever shut down Notre Dame, Chicago would empty out like a sieve.

I used to watch all this carrying-on with a certain anthropological interest. But before long I began to get sucked in myself. It started in a small way in the early 80s. My wife used to live in a building in the South Loop that had become one of the Notre Dame dorms. One day in the elevator she met a Domer-- that's what they call them--who, I found out, knew my brother in high school. The guy had a roommate who was also from Notre Dame. It developed that the roommate's brother was my wife's dentist. We would bump into them in the health club, a bar, the street. A small thing, as I say, but significant.

I first met Paul a short time later, when a PR outfit sent me over to write a press kit about a cruise-boat company he'd started with his buddy Terry. In retrospect it occurs to me that this may have been a setup; the PR outfit was run by a former Catholic nun. But at the time I thought nothing of it.

Paul and Terry used to organize parties in college--this seems to be the principal course of study at Notre Dame--and they kept it up when they moved to Chicago after graduation. One of the parties was held aboard a rented cruise boat. Apparently it was quite a night. At some point during the proceedings--I envision this as happening under a table, surrounded by broken bottles and snoring drunks--the thought struck them: jeez, we could buy a boat and have parties all the time. And that is what they did. To pay the freight they rented the boat out for charters. Perhaps you're familiar with it. Perhaps, God help you, you've been on it.

It turned out Terry had known my brother in high school. Around the same time I was asked to join the board of a civic group. It turned out that Paul already belonged. These were warning signs, but I ignored them. You don't realize the extent to which your life is being taken over by these people till it's too late.

Before I got married I had gone out with a woman who had gone to Saint Mary's, which is sort of the Notre Dame women's auxiliary. After we had both moved on to other things, I went out to Paul's boat one day and there she was, working for the boat company. Her mother, I learned, knew some guy who ran a pet store up on the northwest side who was great friends with my parents. The mother consequently knew all about my father's hobby, raising homing pigeons, a bit of family history I have tried desperately to suppress. The daughter (the woman I went out with, in case you're losing track) had a cousin who also went to Saint Mary's, who at the time had a crush on this guy her brother had gone to high school with. The guy was a writer I knew who was doing a book about Belfast.

I began to become concerned. You have the idea you are living in a cosmopolitan city of seven million, and suddenly you discover it is really the world's largest small town. Writers loathe this. We are supposed to be . . . how can I put it so a layman will understand? . . . adrift. Lost and afraid in a world we never made.

Alienation is what impels us to write, along with the need for more money to support our drug habits. We are not supposed to have a lot of truck with cousins and brothers and high school and the track team. It ruins the effect. It saps your creativity.

I mentioned this to my writer friend. "The Notre Dame mafia, with its insufferable friendliness, is the greatest threat to literature since the conquest of tuberculosis," I said. Or words to that effect. My friend said to relax. But it took him seven years to write his book.

The thing is building up a certain momentum, I fear. One of my wife's coworkers and her husband invited us to a party the other day. They lived in a place so far out in the boondocks you half expected to see water buffalo. I didn't figure to know anyone. The first woman I spoke with, who lived in the western suburbs, knew my nephew, who is seven, as well as my nephew's best friend, who is the son of a guy I went to grade school with. And of course she knew my brother and sister-in-law. A short time later I fell into a conversation with someone else. I found out he was the brother of a guy I went to high school with. It went on that way all night.

My wife was miffed. We go to a party with my friends, she said on the way home, and you know more people than I do.

I can't help it, I said, it just happened. There wasn't even anybody from Notre Dame there.

That's just it, she said. It's rubbing off on you. It's like magnetism. You're becoming part of the social glue.

I shudder to think about it, but she may be right. I'm trapped. Consider my cousin's wedding. Paul was there because my cousin's bride worked on the boat. (Everybody works on the boat. Next time you read about one of those disasters where a ship capsizes with 600 people aboard, watch out; it'll be Paul's boat with a full complement of employees.) The mother and the cousin of the woman I used to go out with were there, because . . . well, I never did get clear why. They were just there.

Paul and I spoke for a few minutes. He introduced me to some of his long-lost friends: by the most miraculous coincidence, he had happened to sit behind them at the symphony a few weeks before. They had a look of naive surprise in their eyes that they were seeing him again so soon. I made a mental note to take them aside later.

During dinner I was seated next to a young woman I didn't know. I decided to experiment. Did you go to Saint Mary's? I asked.

She grinned, a little embarrassed. Of course she did. I shuddered. They're everywhere, I thought, It was like being in an episode of The Invaders.

I decided I needed a little Irish counsel. It was pretty good so I had another. After a little while I felt better.

It occurred to me to start explaining to the young woman who all these people were: my thousands of relatives, my more recently acquired meta-family. Hell, I was ready to explain the meaning of life. But I thought better of it. just about everybody present had gone to the same handful of midwestern Catholic colleges--Notre Dame, Saint Mary's, John Carroll, Marquette. Anyone she didn't know now she would surely catch the next time round.

A little later my mother came over. As she always does on such occasions, she began telling me stories about the assembled guests. My mother has a fund of information along these lines that would have awed J. Edgar Hoover. There were tales about the bride's parents, the bride's brother, the bride's sister's husband's brother, and others. There were stories of prosperity and woe and young men who died before their time.

I was thoroughly mellow by this time, having consoled myself to the tune of about a quart. I became reflective. I had been hearing stories like this for a long time, and always thought of them as gossip, which of course they were. But it occurred to me that they were more than that. They were part of the web that tied a place together. It seemed to me that I lived in a world of Faulknerian complexity, leaving out only the dalliances with slaves. There was a time in my life when I had wanted to be free of such things. But I realized that in the end I was just a midwesterner who had not strayed very far from home. I turned to the young woman and asked if she had watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.


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