I visited Chicago for the first time when I was thirteen years old. My grandmother and mom took me over Thanksgiving so I could see the painted windows of the Magnificent Mile during the holidays. I experienced a lot of firsts during that long weekend – my first high heels, my first plate of scallops,my first taxi, my first after-dinner hot drink (tea, which I poured both cream and lemon into and then watched as the cream curdled – I drank it anyway). We bought beautiful clothes on that trip – clothes in bright colors, fun costume jewelry, unusual shoes. I remember more than anything else being fascinated by the revolving doors of the department stores and the elegant women who came in and out of them in a haze of perfume and leather. On that trip, my mom bought a costly bottle of Georgia Red perfume and whenever she wore it I was transported back to my four days in the Drake Hotel, shopping on the mile, seeing plays and eating late night suppers (we don’t eat, we dine) my grandma always liked to say. From the moment the bellhop opened my taxi cab door I fell in love with Chicago and dreamt of moving to the city on the lake.
When I returned to Alpena I wore one of my brand new outfits to school, multi-colored leggings and a warm purple sweater. My math teacher told me in front of the entire class I looked like a Polish fishing lure. While even four days ago that would have cut me to my core, possibly even made me cry, my time in Chicago gave me the smallest of confidences and the ability to realize that out there, in the world, people wore more than flannel shirts and carhart jackets, they dined at restaurants a la carte, in fact there was a whole other world where my outfit was fabulous, and I knew it. And I felt sorry for my math teacher.
Since my first trip I have visited Chicago numerous times – twice more with my mother for museums and plays and shopping, and each time it is wonderful, a couple of other times for work, but mostly to visit my friends and family who have moved to the city, of which there are many, and I now know Chicago is so much more than Lakeshore Drive and the mile – it is vintage clothing stores, small parks, Indian food, late-night movies, performance art, used book stores, tea shops and baseball – through visits with my friends and visits with my family I know Chicago more and love it better.
In Chicago, too, some of my easiest relationships live. There is J., my roommate from my second year of college, and her husband, A., and their apartment in Ukrainian Village where I spend at least one weekend a year. We stay up all night drinking and then spend the days in our pajamams drinking coffee, never running out of conversation. At some point we always manage to dress and visit some restaurant or another in Wicker Park but the point of my visits with J. and A. aren’t so much about the food (although it helps) as it is about the talk.
My cousin SA lives here, too. We are about nine months apart in age and he has always felt like more of a brother than a cousin. Last weekend he met us for dinner in Wicker Park and spent the day with S. – my cousin is one of those people who opens up his entire world to you with no inhibitions, so much so you really don’t want to leave it.
And then, of course, there is my best friend M. – my best friend since the fifth grade. I am writing this from her apartment where I am spending four nights because she and her husband will soon be moving back to Michigan for graduate school. For the first time in twelve years we will again live in the same city and while we are giddy about that fact we are also taking the city very seriously, this weekend. We are touring, in fact. Because there are all sorts of things you don’t do when you actually live somewhere fabulous and when it’s time to say goodbye to someplace as phenomenol as Chicago, suddenly you want to go to the zoo.
I have friends from graduate school who live here as well, one of whom I met up with for lunch earlier this week. CW and I picked up as though we were both back in Pittsburgh searching for decent burritos.
The first time I visited Chicago, I fell for its opulence – for FAO Schwartz, for Lawry’s – for The Phantom of the Opera. Now when I visit I fall into the arms of so many people who love me it’s almost hard to breath.
The Chicagoans I know and love are extremely different folks, and yet they all back Barack Obama and talk about him as though, you know, they are single-handedly responsible for his very existence. If you need to get somewhere in the city they will carefully explain to you that Chicago is on a grid, and everything runs north, south, east or west, as though this is a sufficient explanation when you ask for directions. If you need further instructions they will sigh, and tell you to take the blue line, and you will, and it will get you where you need to go as you study your map and realize, hey, the city is on a grid! Not hard at all!
I’ve played around occasionally with the idea of moving here – I like the way the vibrancy of the city collides with the flat midwest landscape, and I like the food tremendously. Thirteen year old me probably wonders why I don’t just move here right now – escape the suburbs, find an apartment and start strutting down the avenue. But, I don’t know…if I lived here…I couldn’t visit, and it is my biannual visits with people I love in a city I worship that provides solace for my soul and reminds me of who I hope to be. I like the escapism this city provides, and don’t really want to suddenly become irritated by the thousand small things living in a place creates. For me, a visit here is highly restorative and I’m not sure I could find such comfort anywhere but in the city on the lake, so close to home and also, sovery far away.