The last time someone asked me where I was from, the response itself was long enough to be nominated for a writing award (it certainly wouldn’t win, if anything for lack of lucidity).
“I’m from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, about 30 minutes on the 94, sort of near Northwestern University in Evanston, in John Hughes territory: You know, like “The Breakfast Club” and ‘Ferris Bueller.’”
In fact, I’ll continue, if I haven’t lost the captive attention of my audience, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club” were filmed at my high school in Northbrook, Ill., and were based on them. It’s a fun little fact that sometimes surprises and leads to an additional inquiry or two on the subject, but never lingers beyond ephemeral interest.
It was the same for me for the longest time, until it wasn’t. I threw out the fact as a matter of location-sleuthing convenience, and occasionally as an icebreaker, but, as most would think with a fun fact, my high school’s cinematic legacy wasn’t much of my identity — despite the seemingly unending obsession with it that surrounded me growing up.
It changed once my passion for film bloomed. I wanted to see myself — the halls I walked, the classes I took — on screen. And “Ferris Bueller” was it.
Film-going audiences have watched North Shore Chicago life unfold on screen for years. 1980’s “Ordinary People” traced the lives of a grieving family in Lake Forest. “Mean Girls” ostensibly was set at Evanston Township High School, but any North Shore resident will tell you with a wink and perhaps a hushed voice that it’s actually about New Trier Township, Evanston’s wealthier neighbors to the north and the cluster of towns to the east of Northbrook.
And all John Hughes’s films — “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Home Alone,” and, of course, “Ferris Bueller” — were set in the North Shore, and some specifically in the fictional (but not entirely) town of Shermer (Northbrook was called “Shermerville” before anti-German sentiment in World War I led the town to name itself after the branch of the Chicago River that runs through the town).
But there’s something about “Ferris Bueller” specifically that so perfectly captures a suburban Chicago malaise and boredom, and the yearning to escape it.
My family drove down to Chicago nearly every week when I grew up, almost always to visit my grandmother who lived at the corner of Michigan and Chicago avenues. It was prime real estate — the famous water tower that survived that 1871 Chicago Fire sat across the street. Her window faced the towering John Hancock Center and a sliver of the Oak Street Beach peeked through the buildings clawing into the sky, north on the Magnificent Mile. I could spend hours staring at that view.
Every week, as I sat in Sunday school classes at synagogue, I couldn’t wait to climb into the car, stop at home briefly to grab some waters and a sweatshirt (“It’s colder by the lake,” my mom reminded us), and head down on I-94. The suburban tree-and-house-scapes that lined the highway would soon give way to the more crowded buildings lining busy streets. We would pass an old church whose ornate exterior came just short of the highway. We would pass a building side with an impressive and ever-changing wall mural. We would pass the Morton Salt rooftop, which featured its logo — the umbrella girl — with the saying, “When it rains it pours.”
The same could be said for the city itself. In Chicago, even on the touristy and relatively staid Michigan Avenue, life was lived. Even more so in the peripheral neighborhoods where I began spending more time in recent years: Lincoln Park and Lakeview, the West Loop, Hyde Park. “Ferris Bueller,” I knew, was full of delirious exhilaration, but it was a metaphor for a state of being — of simply being in the city.
Ferris dances around to The Beatles’s “Twist and Shout” in a German pride parade. Every moment in the city seems like a celebration, every street corner a meticulously planned work of art. He steals the identity of the fictional Abe Froman, the supposed “sausage king” of the city. Chicago, literally “the second city,” with a massive chip on its shoulder, is I believe the nation’s best-kept secret, even if 8 million or so people live in its environs and millions more tourists flood the city every year.
When my parents moved to Chicago from Washington, D.C., they settled in the city proper, moving around from neighborhood to neighborhood until deciding to move into the suburbs after deciding against a house in Chicago’s Wicker Park, then on the cusp of a rapid bout of gentrification.
I understand their decision — and I value living in a quiet village on the edge of Cook County — yet I can’t help but mourn the exuberant urban life I could have had. As if my birth itself were a scar in replace of an alternate life, I was born in Evanston while both my brothers and my father were all born in the same hospital in downtown Chicago.
I suppose I’m not alone, not even in my immediate family. My dad’s ancestors lived on the southside of Chicago since the 1870s, and his mother moved the family to Glencoe, Ill., only one town east of where I grew up. He, too, traveled to the city frequently to see his grandparents and the extended family in Hyde Park. And yet, at the end of the day, he lived in suburbia, close in proximity, but much farther in culture, from the city a half an hour to the south.
When I first watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” I was with my dad, who smiled and said, “This is a perfect movie.”
I think he knew it too.