Archives for category: Chicago

*I wrote this a couple of weeks ago when I was still in Chicago and I will post it in the present tense as if I am still there because that is where my heart is.

Chicago, City on the Make

Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.

-Nelson Algren

Perhaps I particularly like that imagery because I broke my already crooked nose the first week we lived in Chicago but, more than that, I was amazed that someone could so eloquently put into words the exact way I feel about Chicago. I shouldn’t be surprised though because that’s what a good writer does, they translate feelings into words.

One of the things I love the most about Chicago (and this is probably true of all densely populated cities) is that living there is a challenge, a dare to be brave enough to overcome anything and everything; the snow and bitter cold, the parking, the mail, the grocery shopping, the taxes, the transportation and the existing in such close proximity to and dealing with so many different people. It is hard to live here and you have to work for everything you get. You become one of the unwashed masses whether you want to or not. At least the people in my Chicago do.

Why do Chicagoans embrace a life that is oftentimes hard? Because it pushes us, refines us, makes us pull more from ourselves than we ever knew we were capable of. This city is exactly that metaphorical woman with the broken nose; a woman like that has seen and done things and she expects more from you than excuses and complaints. She expects you to get out of bed willing to bravely face whatever she is ready to throw at you. Some days she will be sweet and mild like the warm summer days when the breeze flows into the city from the lake, but more often she will be dark and moody slamming you with gale force winds, rain and snow. If you stick with her, you will discover she has changed you. You will be braver, more determined and patient, more willing to overlook things that don’t matter, more willing to work, try and give. Chicago makes you strong, if you let it, and when you are finally transformed, every day with that crooked-nosed woman will be a gift, a chance to do and be more.

Last summer we watched an apartment building in our alley burn. Nobody was hurt but the fury was frightening. I saw that same fury in the snow and wind of February 2011. My husband works in a warehouse in the old stockyards. He drives through the gate where countless animals were driven to their deaths to sit at his computer and be haunted by their ghosts (or so I like to tease him). There is a fury in this city. But, for all of the ugliness, there is an unquenchable beauty. The architecture of even the most decayed buildings is undeniably magnificent, especially when adorned with flower boxes overflowing in the summer. Lake Shore Drive winds you between God’s creation to the East, the startlingly green water of Lake Michigan is truly breathtaking, and some of man’s finest work to the West where the skyline rises to mingle with the majesty of the barely visible stars at night.

I love Chicago because it has made me who I am. Not from birth, but because it’s environment and people have changed me. Chicago is now part of me. I will be back, definitely to visit and possibly to live someday, but I know it won’t ever be the same again. As I ride through the different neighborhoods I realize that each person’s experience of Chicago is as unique as the streets, shops, restaurants, and neighbors they are surrounded by. I cannot come back because just like this city, I am always changing and so is everyone around me. Letting go of a good part of life is hard but moving on doesn’t detract from the beauty of a life left behind. It is a gift because you cannot truly remember a place until you are removed from it and can carry those memories with you.

Goodbye to the one drawer in our entire kitchen, the drain monsters that grow to be the size of dinosaurs, the five keys on my keyring required to get into my apartment, and the creepy raccoon bandits hanging out in the alley wearing their masks and planning the abduction of my garbage. Goodbye to the Eastern European cashiers at Devon Market with that stare in their icy blue eyes that never changes, it’s always hard, always hinting at the despair of a Dostoyevsky novel and if you happen to see their elusive smile (sometimes The Boy can make it appear), that hardness is still there because they know that even with the joys of life, trouble is waiting around the corner. Goodbye to Carlos, my favorite alley person, who never wears a shirt when the temperature is above 70 degrees but saved the day (fully clothed, no less) when my apartment flooded in the dead of winter. Goodbye to the predictable CTA workers who regularly accused me of not scanning my pass when I pushed The Boy’s stroller through the gate because they weren’t paying attention and doing their job (for the record, I always scanned my pass and I was always polite when they accused me of doing otherwise.) Goodbye to the CTA bus drivers who stopped to pick me, The Boy and our groceries up even when we weren’t at the bus stop simply because they are nice. Goodbye to the ubiquitous bicyclists, all shapes and sizes (my favorite was the overweight man on a too small bicycle wearing a suit and a fez) hauling miraculously sized things to unknown places. Goodbye to the outrageously high gas prices that make the complaints of people living anywhere else in the country laughable (my best friend mentioned that her gas prices were almost “$4 a gallon!” and I told her I honestly didn’t remember when ours were under $4 and now they’re quite close to $5). Goodbye to the Indian Markets on Devon who kept us stocked with naan, spices, and other delicacies (but not Indian desserts, see The Man Who Ate Everything for an explanation). Goodbye to my beloved polar bear at the Lincoln Park zoo, I will forever treasure the magical mornings The Boy and I spent getting high fives from her through the glass window.

Goodbye to the amazing Chicago Public Library system, the museums, The Bean, the skyscrapers, the parks and playgrounds, the aquarium, and all of the wonderful places we frequented. Goodbye to my beloved train. Goodbye to the squirrels, trees, leaves, puddles, rocks and sticks the Boy marveled over and the dogs chased or peed on. Goodbye to Edgewater, my neighborhood (and my favorite neighbors: Debbie, Gayle, The Brunsons & The Rowberrys).

Goodbye to my friends (you know who you are), you have inspired and changed me. You are the hardest thing to leave behind.

Due to our unusual circumstances (which I won’t go into here) I will spend the next 6 months without a home. So, I will still be a Chicagoan floating in the ether of the United States, bouncing from place to place trying to find a lovelier lovely with my Illinois license plate, my expired city sticker no longer necessary to protect me from tickets, my generously dented bumper – the telltale sign of city living – and the frightening long ‘a’ sound I’ve found creeping into my words with greater frequency lately (perhaps I am leaving not a moment too soon).

Although I am horribly sad to leave, my love for Chicago makes me excited for the future because who knows where else I will go and what other places I will fall in love with. I certainly never hoped and planned to live here, but here I am saying goodbye to my lovely so real.

(I apologize for my long absence but I’ve been packing up and moving. Expect a post about Mikey’s unexpected adventures in Mexico soon. You will not be disappointed.)


The day we moved into our apartment, the guy, Tim, who had lived here previously was still in the process of moving out. Our moving trucks sat facing each other, blocking the alley and almost kissing. When his was finally loaded and ours unloaded, we talked to him for a little while about the neighborhood, suggestions for places we could get dinner, and during the course of the conversation he offered to leave some of his furniture for us. We didn’t need what he was offering so he left it in the alley and explained to us, if you ever don’t want something, just leave it in the alley, somebody will take it.

I wondered at the time, who would want alley furniture? I guess I believed myself to be above perfectly good, free things, simply because the pick-up locale happens to be frequented by rats during the late hours (We know this first hand because one of our dogs caught one. I was so proud.) I have since come down from my high horse and over the past few years the list of items we have acquired from our alley has grown to mythical proportions. My friends are always amazed over my treasures and some have taken to calling it “The Magic Alley.” Here are a few of the things we’ve found:

-A dresser, solid wood and in need of a bit of refinishing

-$70 heels, just my size, which I constantly get compliments on

Baby Bicycle Seat

– A pop-up Playhut jeep tent (something like this). Sadly I ripped it yesterday, just a little bit when I was commanded by the “driver” to get in despite my insistence that I was just too big

– A play kitchen. It’s one of the plastic kinds popular 10-15 years ago but with a little scrubbing it’s almost like new.

– A green wooden box (which houses art supplies and used to boost The Boy up so he could look out the window when he was smaller.)

-A suitcase. It’s the Roxy brand, blue with flowers. Admittedly a little girly, but easier to spot in the airport baggage claim.

-A Baby einstein kaleidoscope toy

– A baby keyboard to hang in a crib

– Endless clothes and shoes that don’t fit. (If they stay out there for longer than a day, I pick them up and drop them off at the thrift store.)

-A bookshelf (also in need of some repair.)

This isn’t a comprehensive list because I’m sure there are things I’m forgetting and this doesn’t include the things that we don’t pick up. Almost everyday there is something out there: vacuums, furniture, shoes, jumper cables, shelves, car bumpers, clothes, and lots and lots of scrap metal. Our alley is not atypical of Chicago, we are just fortunate that the stuff we seem to find is especially useful, new and expensive.

There is a whole sub-culture of “Scrappers” in Chicago that scour the city looking for metal to sell. They go up and down the alleys everyday, even in the dead of winter, in battered pick-up trucks picking up stuff people have left because they know the Scrappers are coming. Sometimes it’s one or two guys with grumpy looks who almost hit me as I walk to my car. Sometimes it’s a friendly Grandpa who waves to The Boy as he slowly inches along. In the summer, it’s often a family affair, with the kids crammed in the truck cab with their Mom and Dad, listening to loud mariachi music. It’s one of the quirky things that I love about Chicago. There’s even a documentary about it, which I haven’t seen, but I want to.

The other night Michael came home late. The dogs barked incessantly as usual, but it was his unnecessary (in my opinion) banging that woke me up. He came into the bedroom, a huge grin on his face and said, “Want to see what I found?” I was completely awake, all annoyance at being woken up gone. The Magical Alley had provided. A practically new violin; it’s missing a few strings and quite far from a Stradivarius, but still, a free violin and I am already dreaming about taking lessons someday. And a treasure chest, which seems very appropriate, a treasure chest to hold our alley treasure.

The weather is getting warmer, the wind is really starting to blow and The Magical Alley is awakening.

The El on Wabash by Smoothfoote
The El on Wabash, a photo by Smoothfoote on Flickr.

I love Chicago.

Of course I love the city skyline, the museums, Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan; but it’s the less obvious things that have worked their way into my heart.

I love the unique neighborhoods. I love riding the train (which is supposedly called the “L” but I have never actually heard anyone use that term.) I love how I can be surrounded by people but still be completely alone. I love the amazing food (especially Indian) and restaurants. I love the Cubs even though I don’t love baseball. I love that they never win the World Series because of the curse of the billy goat. I love the architecture, not just the well known buildings by the famous architects, but I love that everything is old and brick and unique. I love to think about the people who lived in those same apartment buildings and houses 50, 80, 100 years before. Real people with names and jobs and lives and families who now lay in the beautiful cemeteries that I look out on as I ride the train.

I love that it now seems natural to me that the mail carriers don’t pick up outgoing mail, you actually have to drop letters in the blue boxes on the street corner, and no, don’t try those green boxes (even though they look almost identical to the blue mailboxes) those are for storage. I find it amusing that at a red light people will pull up next to you on the shoulder or in a turn lane and then when the light changes, quickly pull out to cut you off. (These people apparently have somewhere important to be or else they were sick on the day that “wait your turn” was taught in kindergarten.)
I love the alleys which for me have been a never ending source of free, practically new, stuff. I love the graffiti that I can see as I wait on the train platform, writers making their mark, becoming part of the city. I love being able to walk everywhere I need to go. I love that there is a beautiful beach just half a mile from my apartment and the cheerful man who greets me as he does tai chi there every day.

I love that the weather defies the meteorologists daily and in the spring and fall you have to be prepared for every possibility. I love the constant sirens and honking in the summer and the deathly quiet that settles on the city once the thermometer reaches 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I am always amazed by the large potholes that appear overnight in the winter and can swallow half of a car if you’re not careful. I love the camaraderie of complaining about the bitterly cold winter and knowing that unless a person has experienced it firsthand, they have no idea. I love that when a true blizzard hits, the moment it’s over people are digging out and getting on with their lives; the same way people started rebuilding the day after The Fire of 1871. I love that when the very short summer finally arrives that it is so beautiful I can easily forget just how long and cold the winter actually was. I love that Chicago is my home.

Some of these things that I love, they weren’t great at first. They once seemed like inconveniences but now are all part of the charm, the way this life works. I wasn’t born here, I didn’t grow up here, but this city is a part of me now. Chicago feels more like home than anywhere that I have ever lived.

I wanted to write a story about a family who lived in a city but until I came to Chicago, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t really know what a city felt or looked like. Chicago has been my muse. My writing, characters and setting came to life here. Each and every time I walk out my door something inspires me and triggers my imagination.

I am not comparing Chicago to anywhere else. Every life is different and exciting in it’s own way. I’m just saying, this has been my life for the past 3.5 years and I love it.

And I’m going to miss it.