Sweet Home Chicago
I’m not a native Chicagoan; I moved here from downstate Illinois in 1995 to go to college at UIC. But from the time that I moved here, it’s always been home.
I have a few very distinct memories of things that delighted me and made me feel like this was the place that I belonged:
When I first arrived, for my freshman orientation, I had taken Amtrak up, and so I disembarked at Union Station. Unfortunately, I had no idea where to go from there to get to UIC. I dragged my fat, overpacked duffel — this was in the days before I learned about the value of the whole “travel light” concept — and started walking. A few blocks in, I looked west and recognized the shape of University Hall — that’s the upside-down building right off the Ike a smidge east of Racine — from my student-recruitment materials, and started walking toward it. On my way, I must have looked tired or grumpy, because a random guy stopped me on the street. He said, “Hey. You need to smile, gorgeous.” I smiled at him, and he said, “Yeah, that’s it. Keep smilin’.” He grinned at me and went on his way.
I’m always surprised, to this day, at how less approachable people in other cities are, relative to Chicagoans. I always get a smile when I give one, and I have the greatest random conversations with complete strangers. Last time I was in London, I was on an escalator coming out of Victoria Station and was struck by how grouchy everyone was. That’s not Chicago, though.
Another time, a friend of mine, Brent, came to visit and I took him on a ride on the el to show him around a little — we were broke, and I was still entranced by the public transit system. We took the blue line from Halsted all the way out to O’Hare, snarfing gyros from Zorba’s on the way, and then turned around and came back. We looked out, reminisced, and talked about how great Chicago was the whole time.
Now I’ve been here for almost ten years — holy shit, I’m old now! — and I can’t imagine any place feeling more like home than here. This is the place I live, and the city I love, despite its idiosyncrasies (and, boy, does it have idiosyncrasies). I’ve lived on the north side, on the south side, and even — horrors! — the suburban wasteland of Evanston (if it’s still got an elevated, it doesn’t count as a suburb, right?). Now I live downtown, in the heart of everything, and I love it just as much as I always have. Whenever I’m coming back, I look for the spires at the top of the Sears Tower: when I see them, I know I’m home.
Last week my friends and I celebrated my birthday (observed), at Strega Nona. We took the el up, since — after all — it was $2 martini night, and there was no chance that I was going to drive — and I spent most of the journey staring out of the window at the tracks, the signalling and paraphernalia that accompany the trackage. It reminded me of that time, going up north to O’Hare with Brent, nearly ten years ago. And I was still as in love with Chicago as I ever was — even if, now, the station announcements are pre-recorded instead of announced live by the train operator.
Tonight I went to my local neighborhood pub and they happened to have The Blues Brothers on the tv, courtesy of AMC. I showed up in time to watch The Greatest Car Chase Scene Ever — sorry, Bullitt — and the landmark-spotting just reinforced it all.
I’ve been here for what amounts to my entire adult life. I’ve worked for universities, public schools, and dotcoms — pre- and post-bomb. I’ve been in a long-term relationship, and I’ve been single. I’ve come out. I’ve paid off my student loans, and tried to finish my degree (I will, Ma, I swear, someday!). I’ve eaten at Uno’s — the real Uno’s, not the shlocky chain Uno’s popping up everywhere else outside of Chicago. I’ve been to a game at Wrigley, and screamed at the players at Comiskey. I’ve taken a million trips courtesy of the CTA, and given my friends a million rides home in my car. I’ve voted in national elections, and I’ve voted in piddly election years where nothing more interesting than local tax referenda were up for grabs. I’ve accidentally stumbled into a career that I adore, in a field that I love.
And this town is at the center of it all.
I love Chicago. It’s my home. And what more, really, needs to be said than that?