Photo Credit: BreakNight
There’s a storm building to the southwest tonight. I saw the lightning on my train ride home from work, and the wind picked up as I was walking, tugging at my scarf and the hemline of my pants. I can feel the bass-rumble of thunder in my chest. The streets outside are empty; the city’s holding its breath, waiting for the rain to start falling. It was supposed to arrive hours ago, but like many things–cats, children, creative inspiration–the weather won’t be hurried, won’t stick to the timetable prescribed to it by professionals.
When I moved to Chicago on May 22, 2011, I was shocked by the intensity of the thunder storms. I arrived in Chicago just in time for the great big Midwestern storms to come crashing through the city. I remember texting a friend who’d grown up in Indiana and now lives in Madison: Is this normal? Is this legit apocalypse weather? Should I be looking for a beardy dude named Noah?
It’s been two years. I’m used to the storms. I’m not quite used to the city. Maybe I don’t want to be. My Gozamos’ profile still says that I “recently landed in Chicago,” like I’m a migratory bird that got blown off course but liked the city enough to build a nest and roost in it.
When people ask me why I moved to Chicago, I always smile a little apologetically. I’d originally planned to move to Europe, particularly France. It was a whim, but I’d done some serious research on work visas, started learning French. Then, one day during the winter, I texted my former roommate who was living with her folks again in Oak Park: I miss making pho with you.
She texted me back an offer: she was moving to the city in the spring and wondered if I was interested in getting an apartment together. It seemed easier than moving to France. A couple months later, my train pulled out of Penn Station. I had two bags, one of which was half-full of books.
My first month was awful. My grandmother died less than two weeks after I’d left the east coast; the last time I’d seen her had been the day I took a train from New York to Chicago. She was excited for me. Her parents had moved to Forest Park when she was a teenager, and we spoke excitedly about going to the Art Institute and the FieldMuseum together.
A few days after she died, I wrote a letter to her that I later read at her funeral. I called my mom from my overheated, stuffy apartment to read it to her. It was hot that week, and I was in job-searching hell, applying to anything and everything that I vaguely qualified for. In between interviews, I was cleaning the holy hell out of our apartment, and it smelled like drywall dust and bleach. It was so hot, and I was so thirsty that I drank three beers during our hour-long conversation, and wound up drunk and crying on the floor, watching the ceiling fan spin above me.
It’s so hot here, Grandma, I’d written. In the letter, I described the heat that made my feet swell and my legs prickle; the elm tree that stood like a crooked sentinel on the corner, leaning out over the intersection. I described my dusty, hot apartment, the smell of tar and exhaust on the street, the way whole families gathered on the corners when someone opened up a fire hydrant. I can add more memories now: the boy with autism that used to live downstairs and would wake me up by pounding on the walls and shrieking; eating at Golden Nugget at 3am on Halloween while dressed like a yeti; going on a haunted house ride during the Puerto Rican Festival, and the guy who ran the controls that asked my friend and me, “You know this ride is for little kids, right?”
I could write about the smell in the air right now, the cool wind, the thunder that’s growing louder the closer it gets.
Two years later and I’m moving again, from HumboldtPark to Pilsen, west side to the south. Somehow, it’s more complicated to leave this neighborhood and its attendant memories than it was to leave my family, my girlfriend, and my beloved mountains in Vermont. That was a clean break. This is a messy transition.
I originally planned to make this a farewell column to my favorite restaurants, bars and cafes on the West Side, all the secret places that I love too much to review. But in sitting down to write, I’ve triggered a flood of memories, a meditation on everything I’ve experienced since I landed in Chicago, blown off course by a random text message on my way to Europe.
I’ll miss the pizza at Barbari, the Filipino breakfasts at Uncle Mike’s, the beer at Archie’s and the cowboy bands at the California Clipper. I’ll miss lying in the pile of pillows by the window at Cafe Ballou, drinking tea that the owner’s mother mailed to him from Iran. I’ll miss discussing beer with the guys at Puerto Rico Food & Liquors; the meat counter at Farmer’s Pride; and the organic veggies and fried pie at Amish Healthy Foods. I’ll miss being hungover and getting brunch at Bite. I’ll be back, of course–I still work in the neighborhood–but they won’t belong to me in the same way.
I could also tell you about the time that Corey Nuffer and I went to Vera and spent a good ten minutes talking about comma usage and exclaiming over pickled beef tongue. Or the night a nerdy bartender at Owen and Engine made me my first sazerac, bringing the ingredients over to the table and mixing it in a grand production. Or my twenty-seventh birthday, which ended at Scofflaw, where a waitress brought us a plate of cookies at midnight.
Two whole years in Chicago. A lot of meals. A lot of memories.
The rain’s falling. I just looked up, and it’s actually pouring outside, water coming down in sheets, slapping against the window like an angry hand. But I’ll bet you anything that in an hour it’ll be barely drizzling.
This city loves to keep me guessing.