Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chicago and me...

I am wondering today what it means to be a true Chicagoan. Does it mean that the sound of the garbage truck outside on Monday morning - lifting, roughly dropping plastic garbage cans, the slow acceleration and loud, squeaking brakes - is ingrained? Does it mean that if someone woke you up at three in the morning and shouted, "Quick! What train do I take to get to Midway?" you'd be able to immediately respond, "Orange line," before falling back asleep? Does being a true Chicagoan mean that the famous, proud skyline makes you puff your chest out occasionally, that you can live with the disgustingly dirty snow by this time every March? I grew up in the northern suburbs but I was born in Chicago and spent my first two years in an apartment on Damen Avenue.

Surprisingly, I remember several things about our life on Damen. I remember looking out from the perspective of my crib, seeing through the bars, when my brother woke up, crying, in the middle of the night. I remember the building janitor, a tired-looking older man in a grey uniform, hair slicked back, standing in our doorway, talking to my mother. I remember my mother carrying me down a warm street when a random woman with horn-rimmed glasses stopping to say hello to me, the baby, a wide smile on her face, gushing at me. I remember her face up against the sky, clouds behind her, her dark hair in a bouffant, her joyful expression, plain as day, and I remember my mother smiling back at her. Another time, or perhaps on this same walk, I remember my mother carrying me down the street and pointing up at a traffic light: what's that? "Light." My mother smiled, clearly proud. Light was my first word. The city was the backdrop of that moment with my mother and so many others, some things that seemed so unremarkable even at the time that I can't understand why they stuck with me. I also remember when we moved from Damen: my parents standing among moving boxes and disorder, my brother climbing into an empty box and my father reaching down to pull him out.

My family was part of the "white flight" pattern out to the suburbs when my parents made the first of several very smart real estate moves. Though the leafy cul-de-sac road I grew up on seemed like world's apart from our Damen Avenue neighborhood, Chicago cast a very wide shadow, informing our sense of place even when wide suburban lawns and perfect trees to climb surrounded us.

My grandparents still lived in the city, first in the three-flat they owned in Rogers Park (for some reason, my mind mostly retains the kitchen with my grandmother's tea kettle whistling, the postage-stamp back yard and the washing machine in the basement) and then in a condo on Sheridan Road, right across the street from the lake. The place on Sheridan Road is what I remember most: the train down there (my mother didn't drive until she was thirty and never liked driving in the city), the short walk from the Thorndale stop, the apartment buildings everywhere. Edgewater, the neighborhood where my grandparents lived, was referred to as "changing," in the ambiguous parlance of the day, which meant that Chicago's notoriously segregated streets were becoming less so all around them. With that, traditions were becoming frayed and less rigid. In my grandmother's neighborhood of the 1970s, the bakery she had been going to since the 1940s, owned by that sad-eyed German widower with the extravagant window displays, was getting elbowed out by the Caribbean bakery on Howard, the grocery store with the full-service baked goods at lower prices, the terrifying carob-and-almond clusters at the local natural foods shop. I came of age in this more multicultural era, and especially as the town I grew up in was so monotonously white bread, it was a thrilling thing to see. My mother, who grew up in a very segregated, sheltered time and was genuinely afraid of anything non-white or outside of the mainstream, would hustle me along down the street, pulling on my arm as I stared at the Korean dolls in the windows, the hippies with their hands in one another's back pockets slouching under shop awnings. The melting pot of loud, accented voices rising to be heard and intriguing smells and strange music was everywhere, or so it seemed, as soon as we stepped off the train.

We would walk across the street in the summer at my grandparents to run around the beach at Lake Michigan. There was a rickety playground, seagulls and craggy rocks at one beach; smooth, clean sand, the scent of coconut oil and an almost tropical feeling at the other, two blocks away. We could and often did spend the whole day there in the summer; my brother and I would look for starfish that never arrived and wayward mermaids along the shore, and we'd torment my grandmother by going out too far for her comfort into the lake. She'd watch us from the beach, waving her arms ("Come back!") and we'd both go insane giggling as we bobbed around in the waves. We'd make friends for the day, as children do, with shockingly mature city kids who went to the beach without any grown ups around. They wore house keys on loose cords as around their necks. I idolized the city kids, wild as wolves.

As I grew up, Chicago became even more alluring. My grandfather would take us at least couple times every summer to Maxwell Street (he'd buy pocket radios and tube socks from the vendors and occasionally I'd score some Bonnie Bell lip balm) and his favorite deli (Manny's, the one Barack Obama went to during his presidential campaign) where all the old men - and they were all old men - would tell stories in Yiddish and eat cabbage soup with crumbled Saltines on top. Two men had blurry tattoos on their forearms; my grandfather told me they were remnants from Auschwitz. I tried not to stare. The city was where everything collided: the enormous, gleaming skyscrapers and the sawdust-smelling hardware stores with the shop owners sweeping in front; the sleek, chic shoppers gliding by on impossible heels along Michigan Avenue and old ladies with babushkas pushing their carts down Argyle Street. I loved every inch of what I saw and I run home to draw sketches of what my first apartment would look like: a beautiful, ivy-covered courtyard building a bench in the middle.

When I got my driver's license at sixteen, my friends and I would sneak my mother's station wagon to Oak Street Beach or Rush Street as much as we could. I practiced smoking Marlboro Lights but it never took and for the last couple of years of high school, my friends and I were doggedly determined to get into bars only to have our fake IDs openly mocked by the bouncers most of the time, but occasionally they'd let us in with a subtle nod. Gaining entry to the occasional bar with lax standards was like getting into a secret club: we felt giddy with being able to play at being grown ups, if only for an hour or two. I drank screwdrivers not because I liked them, but because I hated beer (still do) and I didn't know any other drinks. One time we parked in a grocery store lot in an attempt to get out of finding a meter and we thought we were pretty slick until we were walking back to the lot at the end of the night and saw my mother's car on the back of a tow truck. We chased down the street after the tow truck, screaming and waving our arms - it was futile, of course - but we managed to cobble together the tow fee among everyone there. My parents never did find out. The subterranean tow lot was like a purgatory where Gollum lived.

Part of Chicago's appeal was its dangerous edge. I grew up during the Tylenol cyanide murders; the horrifying, decomposing evidence discovered in John Wayne Gacy's suburban crawl space. There were gangs and violence; it also wasn't too far removed from the days of mobsters in sooty black suits running the show. Chicago was where Dillinger was killed (right across the street from the long gone and much beloved Lounge Ax) and the Valentine's Day Massacre took place in a Clark Street garage. My parents watched the news every night and clucked their tongues at the random violence of the city: animals. That was how my father referred to city-dwellers. Animals.

I couldn't wait to get here, of course. What does Chicago mean to me? It means all those same things as before: immigrants and socialites, gorgeous feats of architectural wonder and little dusty shops, a gorgeous blue lake and dirty streets. It means a whole bunch of voices coming together - the mother shouting at her son, the two Latinas with the Cub Foods bags laughing with one another, the guy on the business call, the teenager leaving messages - on the bus with the grouchy CTA driver. It means, perhaps, being nonchalant about the occasional drama (political corruption, neighbors in a fire escape argument, a sound that may or may not have been a gun discharging) but taking plowed streets and your opinion as to whether shoveling out a parking spot gives you unofficial ownership of said spot very seriously. (It does not.) It means toughing out the winter together and feeling reborn and deliciously alive on that first warm day: it means savoring the warm months - the beach, the street festivals, dining outdoors - with everything you have. It means not taking things for granted. Chicago means magnificent museums and spray-painted murals inside underpasses. It means the women in colorful saris (and the mouthwatering scent of curry in the air) of Devon Street and the old school hippies of Rogers Park and the nouveau riche of Old Town and the community organizers of Logan Square and the lesbian parents of Andersonville and the party boys of Lakeview and the political artists of Pilsen and the safe streets activists of Austin. It is talking a little too fast but always stopping to help that confused looking stranger holding the map. Being a Chicagoan means that there are going to be a bunch of us kind of squished together so let's all just accept one another, okay? Except if you're flaky: native Chicagoans are famously intolerant of flakes.

One day a couple of years back, my son and I had stopped in the bathroom at Water Tower Place after we'd been playing in the playground in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art. One woman walked into the crowded bathroom, visibly overwhelmed, carrying a bunch of huge American Girl bags. I said something to her as I was drying my hands, asking her where she was from probably, and then she asked me where I lived. I told her that I was from here. "I can't imagine," she marveled, her eyes wide. "There's so much to do. We don't have anything to do back home." My son grabbed my hand, pulling me away, eager to get back outside. "The whole city is our playground," I said as he dragged me off. "You're so lucky," she said.

I am. I love this place.


  1. Oh Marla, I'm breathless! What a beautiful and moving tribute to your home town! I've never been to Chicago, but you've made me feel like I was there right along with you on all your adventures. (Except the part where your mom's car gets towed, I want no part of that!!!)

    I've heard that Chicago is a fantastic city but this post is what has convinced me to put it on my must visit list.

  2. I'm not so sure I agree with you about ownership of shoveled-out parking spots! But, I think I must be fighting a losing battle on that one after having my lawn chairs stolen last winter.

    I laughed out loud when I got to the part about the subterranean tow-lot -- I've been to that place where Gollum dwells.

    Well, sigh, it's showing signs of life again, this city of ours, so I guess we've survived another winter. :)

  3. Thanks, Tasha. :) You'll have to come to Chicago some time and I promise not to get into any car towing escapades. I was a truly awful teenager. I dread the karmic ass-kicking I'll take when my son is a teen.

    Thanks, Val! Obviously we've discussed this before and I have NO issue with someone shoveling out a spot to plant her car for the day or two but it's the people who shovel out a spot and then think that they have dibs for as long as there's snow out that sort of get on my nerves. :) How do other cities do it? There just has to be a more civil way. And, yes, signs of life: they are here. This means that we're in for at least one more snow blast, right? :)

  4. Every time that yearning for the West swells up in my throat I will read this and remember how lucky I am to live here. Thanks for this heartfelt, sensory treat !

  5. Oh, thank you, O! I know exactly what you mean and how you feel. I left my heart in San Francisco but I also love Chicago.

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