“Sorry I’m late. I hope you got my text. Traffic was a mess with the snow and all and there was like, something going around Soldier Field and, yeah. I’m coming from the south side so sometimes it’s hard to estimate how long it’s going to take, especially on a Friday night. Sorry,” I offered honestly to my date.
It was our first date. And last.
“That’s okay,” she said. Then she sneered, face twisted, “So, you live on the Southside? Why?”
Half chuckling and fully hoping that it was only my perception of that comment that made me so uncomfortable (and not some genuinely ignorant sentiment behind it) I said, “Yeah. I’ve lived all over the city, actually, but I live on the south side now. I like it. That’s where I was born and spent most of my childhood,” I looked down at the menu and expected a change in subject.
“I didn’t know you were a Southsider,” she conceded to herself.
“Yep,” I looked up from the menu and for a waiter, for help.
“Really? What do you like about it? I work on the Southside and I couldn’t see myself ever living down there. I mean, ugh,” she said as though I did not just sit down in front of her and say the Southside of Chicago is where I’m from and where I live; as if the area south of Madison Avenue is all one huge mass of undifferentiated land. Nope, there aren’t any unique neighborhoods down there. There surely aren’t unique histories to be understood. It’s just all one foul entity: The Southside. Why do some people act like the Southside of Chicago is just one massive urban craphole?
I quickly ordered the first of many drinks that I would need to make it through what soon shaped up to be — for many other reasons unnamed here — one of the worst dates I have ever been on. As the night went on, I zoned in and out pretending to listen. I often returned to thinking about that Southsider exchange. What the hell did she mean by all that? In thinking about it, I realized I had heard that same tone before from other people, too. What do these people really know about the Southside? Will they ever come to know it as I know it? Should I care? Where was that waiter?
Being a Southsider means I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle while I sat in my family’s Back of the Yards apartment with the windows open; allowing the century-old fermented meatpacking funk to waft through the windows on the sounds of different newly arrived immigrant workers walking around outside — creating a full sensory experience that cannot be replicated in the libraries or classrooms of even the most highly-funded schools. Being a Southsider means I took short eastward bus rides to visit my friends in Hyde Park and Kenwood; an area I now like to call, Obama Country. We broke curfew and hung out doing a whole lot of nothing in our really big pants; a whole lot of super-fun nothing that only teenagers with no responsibilities get away with. Being a Southsider means knowing how to make any pre-gentrification West Pilsen dive bar into a gay bar. (Basically, call every last ‘mo you know and roll in fifty heads deep. Kazam. Insta-gay bar.) Being a Southsider means riding down 26th Street every May and September with the biggest Mexican flag you can find — and knowing just the right way to angle that 2×4 so that the wind doesn’t take it down. Being a Southsider means I had a T-shirt when I was twelve with the word Southside written across the front in Old English lettering. I also had one with the lettering on the back. Black felt Old English letters. Aw, yeah. Represent.
Being a Southsider means I have the best damn view of the city skyline merging onto northbound LSD from I-55 everyday on my way to work. Being a Southsider means I watch winning baseball in a park where being drunk and spilling beer on someone without apologizing will get you a beatdown ’cause that shit is seriously disrespectful, son. Being a Southsider means I have a Polish godfather with a superfan mustache. Why, yes, he does make his own sausage. It is delicious.
Being a Southsider with some sense also means I know pretension when I see it. Being a Southsider with some sense means I have learned that the geographic coordinates of where you keep the crap you buy and lay your ass down at night do not say anything about who you are at the core. But, your sense of community, love of your neighbors and family, and pride in your home — wherever the fates decided to plop you down — do.