I came to Chicago in 2007, the year of the Virginia Tech shooting. I’d been there, and when I got here—to the University—people asked me about it, what it was like. I didn’t become friends with those people, but the city and I got along just fine. Hyde Park and I got along just fine, and in a matter of weeks we grew quite close.
That was over ten years ago now, and will continue to be over ten years ago till I reach some other well-rounded milestone and it becomes over twelve or fifteen years ago and I become old. A great deal has happened across those intervening years, to the point that “intervening” is perhaps the most unfair adjective I could have chosen. But this is about then and now, wormhole-connected, glossing over the in between.
I haven’t moved away yet, but I almost did, and I will. And when I do, I’ll take with me a bunch of boxes and a big piece of myself labeled “CHICAGO” and for the first few months in Elsewhere I probably won’t know what to do with it. I’ll get in elevators and make small talk about the weather. I’ll park on the street and be paranoid about getting a ticket, or park in a lot and expect to be towed. I’ll wear nothing but black, white, and, on more festive days, gray. I’ll expect winter to be seven months long and be surprised every year when that’s what actually happens. I’ll honk my horn in traffic to express all manner of emotions and communicate a wide variety of messages, most especially to inform the driver three cars ahead the instant that the light has changed that they should remove their foot from the brake and place it on the gas. I’ll scowl at my phone as I navigate crowded sidewalks. I’ll find that people do a lot of the same stuff no matter where I go.
These years have been formative, driven by burning questions and thoughts I dutifully, feverishly recorded for fear of losing them and ideas and desires and dreams for which I tried to find some mode of expression—that’s how I’d sum this up. The “process,” if I may, has been like peeling an onion apart and putting it back together again several times over, all slippery and falling apart and never quite the same shape in the end. But the result is no monstrosity, no abomination of nature—at least I don’t think so. Ask me again when I’m gone, though, when I’ve had time to digest a new way of being, a new climate, a new routine, and when I’ve had more time to look back.
I think of all the time I wasted before I got here and started growing up, saying no, saying yes, saying no again, backtracking, starting over, or trying to, and trying to understand, trying to be and become. Here, I learned to grow, and tried to love it. Could I have learned this and done this anywhere? Probably, but I didn’t, and I’m not done.
Chicago is something I read about now with a silent vicariousness, almost as if I shouldn’t. It’s something for which I discreetly search while in its very midst with a cringing, semi-empirical rationalism set to the task of soaking up who we are in words, images, and structure, so I can make something of it myself, my own something, my piece and partial parcel for the packing on to what and wherever’s next, a line in the sand between more and more of the same.
Ten years makes me part of it and it of me, and together we are at times hard, heavy, and stifled, even in our excesses, craning toward a linearity that’s absurdly out of reach. Summers warm us to an almost-welcome that autumn briskly brushes off in favor of the dirt and grime and years beneath. Time is not only visible here, it is our neighbor, in every neighborhood, sometimes on the corner, other times mid-block. We are a cold draft crawling impertinently up under the covers at the foot of the bed to wake an enduring fascination for repulsion at the cracked plaster walls of our collective domestic heritage.