Neil Steinberg's You Were Never in Chicago is like a modern-day Horatio Alger story for struggling young writers, told by one of the most famous (albeit also most lambasted) journalists in the country. There's a bad internship with a no-name paper, where he has to scramble across snowbanks to the fire station every time someone calls 911. There's a retired-military boss who lets Steinberg know he needs to wear a tie by reaching over and yanking out a clump of his chest hair. There is an interview with Playboy that's over in minutes. ("I remember standing stunned in the elevator going down, holding my portfolio at my side, thinking: 'This is the Polish cavalry of my ego meeting the German panzers of reality.'") There is a move back home, a lousy sublet, and three lonely months in Los Angeles where he quits an advertising job before he can be fired. There are cold calls, disappointments, and friends who inexplicably ascend while Steinberg keeps waiting for his train to come in. "By the time I graduated," he writes, "I was flailing, sending off résumés to Plate World ('The Magazine of Collectors Plates'), to newspapers in Kentucky, and to health care magazines in Pennsylvania."
Eventually, Steinberg lands a job reporting for the Wheaton Daily Journal. "I called it 'The Amityville Job,' a nod to the movie The Amityville Horror, whose advertising tagline was the sepulchral cry 'Get out!'" It's a tale as old as time, and one any graduate with a humanities degree knows too well.
And then, like when the distant relative dies and leaves behind a fortune for Alger's orphan, Steinberg is dealt in.
The Chicago Sun-Times hired me because I kissed a girl in a bar. This is the part of the narrative that people usually skip, the dirty little connection where they get their hooks into their future... The bestowing of a favor, the cut in front of the line.
The girl from the bar gives him a number for someone's desk at the Sun-Times, and pages later, Steinberg is a columnist. The famous and powerful are buying him fabulous lunches, he's flashing his press badge for favors, and Mexican masseurs are rubbing down his body with baby oil and oak twigs (seriously).
He may attribute his rags-to-riches climb to a make-out sesh, but before you hold your breath and clutch your résumé like a lottery ticket, remember that Steinberg's Chicago is as much about lucky breaks as it is about who you know. You may have kissed a stranger in a bar, but they probably weren't holding the keys to your dream job. Yes, Steinberg had talent and tenacity, but he also had a keen eye for whose coattails to grab. Not that Steinberg tries to conceal this—he talks about his diploma from Northwestern's infamous Medill School of Journalism as though it came with a Rolodex stapled to it, and at the end of the book, you can tell that he's really arrived in the world when he pulls some strings to get his brother a job.
You Were Never in Chicago contains some pretty dull rhapsodizing about Chicago's mythos, and the injections of Chicago trivia can feel a little like commercial breaks from the narrative. But one thing Steinberg does nail is that manus manum lavat (Latin for "one hand washes the other") "isn't on the Chicago city seal, but might as well be." It can mean the difference between the Chicago Sun-Times and Plate World.