Sunday, September 27, 2009

Establishing Friendships in the Stopover

Not long ago, I wrote a post about how exciting it is to live in such a travel hub as Chicago, where people I know are frequently in and out, either for a weekend, or a longer vacation, or simply passing through. I have had a nice rotation of visitors since I first moved here last September.

With this realization, however, I have learned that “passing through” doesn’t just apply to visitors, and this is a bit less thrilling. Friendships are on a regular rotation here, as people are constantly moving in and moving out. I think this is partly a result of my age. People in their twenties don’t seem to stay in one place for too long, especially twenty-year-olds in this generation (as opposed to twenty-somethings two decades ago, for instance). My generation is restless and, dare I say it, fickle. Most of us don’t know exactly what it is we want to do with our lives, and spend only a couple of years at a company before moving on to something fresh, a different slant of light. This leaves individuals like myself, who like to put down roots, in a bit of a friendship predicament.

I’m starting to face the music—circles of friends in Chicago are ephemeral. Re-establishing your social circle seems to be a regular part of city life. It’s logical. City life is always moving, always in flux. Change is inevitable, and that’s good. But for people who are slow and cautious when developing a friendship beyond acquaintanceship, it sometimes feels like I’ve just gotten close to you and you’re leaving for good.

I’ve been re-establishing my Chicago social circle since I moved back to the city in May. When my internship ended in March, most of my Chicago friends (fellow interns) moved away. Several returned home for a rent-free job search, with a return to Chicago in mind, but they haven’t returned. Some moved away for jobs or school—Denver, Seattle, Boston. Only a few of my friends from the intern crowd are still here in the city, and they’re much younger, and tend to have a slightly different set of interests, than myself.

There will always be a friend or two or three who are in it for the long haul. Although, sometimes even those friends surprise you with the sudden announcement, “I’m looking for a subletter! I landed this fabulous job in [insert city name here].” But at least I feel like I have one or two people in the city who were here when I got here and are unlikely to leave soon.

So, here I am re-establishing most of my social circle. It’s slow-moving, even in a place with three million people. Perhaps, the difficulty is because of the numbers of people. It’s funny how I can talk to some, like the girl who cuts my hair, who say they love how many people are in the city because you’re always making new friends. Then there are others (the majority, in my experience), who lament how difficult it is to make friends outside of work, because it seems like everyone has their own thing going on (or maybe they know Chicago is only temporary, so they aren’t making the investment). At any rate, my friends in big cities all over the country have had similar experiences, so I know it’s not unique to me. And even if making solid friendships occurs at a sluggish pace, the fact is that it does occur; I’m starting to feel much better about the state of my social life. I will likely always have to settle for my best friends living far away from me, but I love that there’s always the possibility of meeting somebod(ies) right here in Chicago who may reach the level of friendship I share with my friends from college. At least the constant flux of friends heading in and out means that I can add to the list of places I can visit to enjoy the company of old Chicago pals.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Soup for You

Last week, I wrote a post about some of my experiences with the homeless in Chicago (and Indiana), primarily sharing observations, and a lot of ambivalence. I recognized that I am uncomfortable with the idea of people living on the streets—shouldn’t this be disconcerting to all of us?—but I also realized that I am wary of giving out money I have when I don’t know how it’s going to be spent. I resolved that if I don’t feel comfortable handing over cash, then I should simply contribute in other ways. So, it was ironic that, two days after I wrote the first draft of that blog post, my boss sent out an email asking for some of the team to serve dinner at a Catholic center that provides meals to the homeless each week. I had no qualms about responding immediately to her email.

Tonight at the kitchen, we all did our small share in feeding 100+ hungry people, and aside from satisfied stomachs, the thing that dominated the dinner hall was happiness. And happiness, even if it comes and goes, is undeniably contagious when present.

Before the dinner, I had honestly forgotten what it feels like to be in a room filled with that many smiling, happy, grateful people. I smiled so much tonight that my jaw hurt, and on the walk home, I smiled at every person I passed on the sidewalk, which is something I hardly ever do. (Ear-to-ear smiles, not the half-assed “oh, hey” kind of pasted-on smile that I usually offer to strangers.) It’s actually been a very long time since I felt as happy as I did tonight.

There was a lot of mutual appreciation at the center tonight. It was such a pleasure for me to be there, rather than at home, alone, curled up with my computer on the couch (something I enjoy after work, but a bit of a bad, sad habit). It is always nice to speak to people who are genuinely happy to have you around, and I tried to make sure that each of those people knew that I was just as grateful to have them there, too. The attendees thanked us all repeatedly, and I thanked them right back. Aside from air of urgency surrounding the food tables, everyone was just relaxed, exchanging healthy banter, jokes, and food. No one seemed sad or angry during that hour and a half. All those people in one room and everyone in a good mood? It seems impossible even under the most favorable circumstances, but from what I could see that was definitely the spirit tonight. There was a lot of sustenance in the room.

Monday, September 21, 2009


The air conditioning unit was gone from the window when I arrived home today after work, and I was so happy to see it go. Now, not only do I have the full panoramic view out my window, unobstructed, but also have more sunlight, and will no longer be kept awake at night by the loud clanking of condensation dripping from the above unit onto mine. I lost countless hours of sleep from that piercing echo, resounding like bee bees, rather than water drops, against the metal. And it would always start around 11 pm, when the outside air became cool enough to leave beads of moisture on the hot units, then would subside, it seemed, until approximately 4:30 am, when it would return, full force. On most nights/mornings, even earplugs couldn't block it out.

The weather has been gorgeous, rendering the A/C unit redundant for a few weeks now, anyhow. Of course, I only used the thing twice all summer, so for me it was always superfluous, more of a nuisance than anything else. But, I just knew that if I got rid of it, we’d finally get that sweltering summer heat, and I'd be kicking myself for having it removed. (Perhaps the fact that I kept my window unit all summer is to blame for the surprisingly cool summer that disappointed most of us.) Oh, well. The summer has now faded into perfectly crisp, autumn weather. I never thought I could fall in love with temperatures below 79 degrees (I’ve always been a fan of heat), but the upper 60s are perfect.

Even though I adore fall and am anticipating the brilliance of the trees as autumn stains their leaves orange and red, I can't help myself: my thoughts are already inching ahead toward Christma—okay, okay, I won’t even bring it up. I promise, I will keep myself in check and try not to impose the wintry season on you by discussing the gift-shopping and family celebrations and baked goods and lights and—okay, okay, I promise. That’s enough. For now, I am going to revel in apple cider, fresh corn, pumpkin scones (thank you, Starbucks), cool night breezes, jacket weather, fiery-colored trees, and, when traveling beyond the city, the smell of fall bonfires (one of the best scents on earth, along with Scotch tape, new books, and Old Spice).

You know, sometimes living in a location like San Diego, or Phoenix, or even Atlanta can sound appealing. But, honestly, I can’t imagine settling down someplace without four distinct seasons, and missing out on the transformation from one to the next, each and every year. It feels so exciting every time, knowing that you're in the middle of a transition. Renewal, rebirth and the phases of life feel so palpable here. So, I’ll take Chicago's sub-zero winter wind chills, thank you, if it means that I get to experience the anticipation of a brand new season four times per year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Considering Chicago’s Homeless Population

Two days ago, I was coming into my apartment complex through the alley, and I saw the garbage man locking up the trash cans. My initial thought was something along the lines of, “Seriously?” I know that that’s part of his job, but really, all I could think was that the transients I often see reaching into trash cans on the El platform were completely locked out. I mean, is it really necessary to lock up people's trash? But then again, I know the city has to be concerned about people sleeping in the dumpsters, let alone rummaging though, and I have to admit that being greeted by throngs of transients every day when I try to enter my apartment building is a little disconcerting. I understand the safety issues. Yet, there’s something absurdly inhumane about locking a dumpster closed.

The first time I ever visited Chicago, I was not prepared for the number of homeless on the streets (a lot of tourists are like this—I see the mixed reactions on their faces all the time on Michigan Ave., and watch them hand over loose change on the train). No one warned me about this before I came to the city that winter, and it broke my heart to see people standing out in the frigid February begging for money. Yet, I was simultaneously uncertain how to react. It's difficult to hand over money to someone you know nothing about, whether good or bad.

The day I moved to Chicago I had a scary experience with an irate homeless man. My roommates had taken me along with them to a free concert in Millennium Park, followed by a drink with their friends in Lakeview. On our walk back toward Uptown, I was verbally attacked by this man, who bee-lined for me, and screamed choice words to tell me that he was gong to kill me. My male roommate jumped between us and told him to back off, at which point the crazed-eyed man spat on my roommate’s shoes and continued his swift pace in another direction. I’d never been verbally attacked by a stranger before, and I’d never had my life deliberately threatened. My roommates assured me that they had never seen anything like that before, despite years of living in Chicago. I chocked it up to a fluke, and went on with my day. I did, however, purchase pepper spray the next day, and became rather wary of my surroundings and strangers in general.

I’m never sure how to feel about transients, and, specifically, what I can or should do about their situation. The economy sucks. And even when it doesn’t, there are honest people out of work and home. But at the same time, that man who came toward me screaming expletives at my face was clearly out of his mind, and if, in fact, he was high or drunk, I do not feel that I should contribute to that habit. Because I do not know who I'm dealing with when I bump into someone on the street, I am very wary of how to respond.

I know that people wind up on the streets for wide and varied reasons. What I don't know is what to do about it. If I give someone a dollar, he will probably still be homeless tomorrow, but maybe he will eat. Or maybe he will feed an addiction. I know some people who say, "Who cares what the person does with the money? That's their prerogative." I don't really agree with that philosophy. I don't want to help someone destroy him or herself.

If you live in Chicago, you see homeless men and women everyday. On the El; on the streets; outside your local Walgreens; on the intersections as you’re walking to work; sleeping in the underpasses. Do you give them money? Or do you just keep walking? This is a dilemma I face nearly every day, when I encounter someone who asks me for change.

Please read my follow-up post: Soup for You.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gimpsing the Sublime

Tonight was glorious: the wind blowing hard, the lake tempestuous, the rush of autumn upon the city. Goethe Street became a wind tunnel as gales swirled between buildings as I ran toward the lake shore. A storm appeared to be brewing, despite the cloudless sky. As the wind unfastened strands of my hair and aroused goose bumps on my skin, I felt so filled with energy that my face burst into an inexplicable grin.

As I approached the beach, it became clear that the autumn wind was energizing the lake, too. I watched the waves repeatedly splash up into white foam and then roll away again as I ran north. Viewing the intensity of the lake and the strength of the wind exhilarated me the way storms do, making me feel small, yet powerful at the same time. Tonight, with my lungs full of fresh, night air, I felt weightless.

When I finally turned southward to head home, I was enraptured by the city lights. They dotted the skyline as though Chicago were a Christmas tree. The Ferris wheel at Navy Pier boasted its patterned, flashy lights, the Drake hotel proudly displayed its name across the night sky, and even the headlights smoothly flowing down Lake Shore Drive emitted a strangely-organic beauty.

It is during moments like this when I feel as though Chicago just wraps me up; she stops being a pitiless city with cold angles, and stern architecture and reminds me that nature courses through her, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Celtic, Er, Um, Mexican, Or Yeah, Celtic Fest

Joy and I let the sound of bagpipes guide us toward Grant Park on Saturday: we were headed to Celtic Fest. As we approached Michigan Ave., we realized that a parade was taking place and expected to see bagpipers, men in kilts and Irish dancing. At first, all I noticed were brightly colored costumes and blaring music. It took me a few seconds to realize that there was nothing Celtic about the parade and that, actually, I was watching Mexican dancers and listening to Spanish lyrics. Right next to Celtic Fest was the Mexican Independence Day Parade! Joy and I looked at each other, wondering briefly if we were in the wrong place, but we could still hear the bagpipes in the distance. So, we delayed our foray into fiddles and kilts and spent a little while observing the parade.

The parade itself was a bit lackluster at times, with long patches of space between each performance/group/display, but it was dotted by periods of excitement. Amidst the less exciting groups, you’d have a dance troupe who really knew what they were doing, or men in costume on horses, or the Chicago Car Club. This last one was pretty hilarious. These guys rolled down the street in their huge old cars all decked out with crazy hydraulics. They’d make their cars dance by raising and lowering the frame, bouncing the front end up in the air, or doing wheelies in the road. The kids inside some of the cars were having a blast. Joy and I couldn’t stop laughing at the seemingly possessed cars. As the last one rolled by us, we left the parade still chuckling, and strolled into Celtic Fest.

Leave it to the Midwest to genericize its festivals. I mean, you can name a festival anything you want, but ultimately, the core components—local food, beer, and hokey marketing schemes—never change. The same booths selling tickets for food and drinks that had dotted Taste of Chicago reappeared for Celt Fest. Similar vendors like Rainbow Cone were there, too. I guess if you go to more than one Grant Park festival, you have to accept that some things are always going to be the same.

What we didn’t find at Taste of Chicago, however, were kilts. Lots and lots of kilts. As we walked into Grant Park, we started counting them. Of course, we only made it to three before I spotted a huge group and said, “Oh, man. I give up counting!” I have the sneaking suspicion that these men wait in great anticipation of occasions like these, when it’s perfectly acceptable for them to spend a whole day in a skirt (I know, I know, it’s not a “skirt”). I enjoy the role reversal. I personally find it quite sexist that only women are supposed to wear skirts. So, more power to you if you rock out your kilt. I’m a little disappointed that we missed the men in kilts leg competition later in the day. Hokey, maybe, but undoubtedly hilarious.

After meandering through the park, and then listening to Cu Roi for about half an hour (they’re very talented—check them out!), we headed back toward the dance tent to watch the Irish dancers, which I was anticipating more than anything. Going into it, I half expected some rag-tag group of young dancers hiding behind fancy costumes, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the dancers were, in fact, very talented. As a matter fact, this dance studio (Dennehy Irish Dancers) produced the 2009 World Champion, Michael Putnam, and he performed on Saturday.

After they worked out some technical difficulties with his music, he took the stage under the makeshift tent set up for the event. As the music began, a woman behind us remarked, “The music seems kinda slow. But maybe it’ll pick up.” The funny part is that, yes, the music was a little slow, but there wasn’t anything sluggish about Putnam’s footwork. He pretty much quadrupled the beat with his footwork. I may not be an Irish stepper, but I am a classically trained dancer, and he just blew me away. I guess that’s why he’s the World Champion. Move over, Michael Flatley—there’s a new Michael in town!

Once we’d seen the dancers, we felt we’d seen the best that Celtic Fest had to offer (I know I was satisfied!), so we headed back toward Michigan Ave. As we walked toward the El, we spotted a stray kilt-wearing man. I remarked to Joy about his bravery, taking the kilt beyond the boundaries of the festival, as I heard a woman giggle at him. Joy noted that within the festival bounds, you’re safe, you fit in, you’re all set. But take the outfit beyond the safe space, and you take a risk.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thank You, Craigslist, the Modern Newspaper

In the opening pages of Devil in the White City, Larson’s narrator describes Chicago as both a liberating and precarious opportunity for women in the late 19th century. (This resonates with me on a variety of levels, but I’ll save you the literary and feminist theory.) I was struck by the following warning for ladies that Larson quotes from the March 30, 1890 Chicago Tribune: “[N]o thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or will telegraph her photograph. All such advertisements upon their face bear the marks of vulgarity…” The reason this struck me is because you’ll find exactly the same thing on Craigslist today, and, I bet, unsuspecting women still respond.

I recall trolling through the employment pages of Craigslist Chicago throughout summer 2008, and for much of spring 2009, reading very similar postings, playing themselves off as legitimate employment ads: I would read them aloud to my friends for a laugh. Under the office/admin category, men would post ads for young women who were “good-looking” to fill a personal assistant position, and part of the application requirements stated, “Must include photograph.” Now, we all know there are certain areas of Craigslist where you’d expect to find something like this, but I guess I was surprised to find them masquerading as something legitimate. I just feel badly for any young woman who unsuspectingly applied and interviewed for one of those positions.

When I first started using Craigslist, I was fairly naïve, myself. The site is pretty much useless if you don’t have a sizeable population that’s actually going to use it. So, I didn’t really know much about it before I started using the site to find jobs in Chicago. Yet, if it weren’t for Craigslist, I most likely would not be where I am now. I did not come across the posting for my 6-month internship on any other sites; in fact, the line of business was a bit different from anything I’d ever really contemplated. But I found it on Craigslist, applied, and ta-da, I was moving to Chicago to work for a big corporation. But not before finding roommates--through Craigslist, of course. I met my future roommates when I came to interview, and I was comfortable with them and their home (so comfortable that I didn’t meet with any of my other Craigslist possibilities), and had no problem moving in two weeks later. In fact, I never had a problem with my Craigslist roommates at all.

When my internship was ending in the spring, and I started job hunting again, Craigslist had been thoroughly infiltrated with scammers (I hadn’t noticed it being as much the summer before). Well aware of the hardships faced by so many Americans during the recession, many posts would prey on desperate job-seekers, directing them to other sites to try and gather personal information, or tricking them into scam jobs (like my friend Jess who handed out The Printed Blog for hours one evening and then went to pick up her paycheck and they made up an excuse not to pay her.) I finally learned not to include any personal information on my resume, other than an email address for contact, unless I could find a legitimate company website through which to apply, or the company responded to me and, in some legitimate way, identified themselves. There are a lot of honest people on Craigslist, but, as in reality, there are plenty of ill-intentioned souls lurking there, too.

I like living in a place where people actually use the site, even if you do have to be cautious about how you use it. I actually owe Craigslist quite a bit, and I feel like it’s an integral part of city life, particularly for those who live on a budget, because the site is loaded with deals. If I’m looking for used furniture, or freebies, or even a date, I can go there. That last part was a joke; I do, however, know some women who have met guys through Craigslist, but that, to me, is scarier than interviewing for one of those sleazy ads for a leggy young chick.

I read in the news recently that Craigslist encompasses the simplicity for which newspapers strive but can’t achieve, and that the secret to that simplicity—and the site’s success—is that its creators didn’t care about making a profit (here’s an article from Boing Boing that will insert you into that discussion.) I feel like Craigslist really does encapsulate the simplicity of early newspapers. You’ve got your classifieds, your job postings, your personals, your humor/advice/opinions (Missed Connections, Rants and Raves), your apartment-hunting. All you’re missing is news. And what makes Craigslist better than a newspaper is the fact that there’s a search box in every category: minimum energy, maximum reward. And as much as I don’t want to see print newspapers go extinct, I won’t be giving up Craigslist anytime soon.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Starry Skies, Pine Needles, and Chicago, My Stinky Love

(An appropriate title for a rambling post.)

Spending last weekend in Toledo, the little city felt oddly defamiliarized for me, for the first time in my life. As a writer, I challenge myself to defamiliarize the familiar on a regular basis, but you don’t expect the place where you grew up to ever really feel that way. When I went home, I was reminded that the recession is still on. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in an economic bubble in Chicago. I know that many jobs have died in Chicago, that the city is hugely in debt, and that people living here have seen hard times, too. But the rate of decline feels much slower here than in so many areas of the country, and the rate of recovery seems quicker here as well. Toledo isn’t a back-water town. It’s a small city, but it’s blue-collar, and a lot of those jobs are gone. It’s only a matter of the ripple effect from there. Many shops in my parents’ part of town sit empty. Toledoans have talked for years about the depressing facades of empty buildings filling the downtown after all the fortune 500 companies that once propped up the city moved out for cheaper lodgings in the suburbs and other Midwestern towns. But, as if tentacles had reached out from downtown Toledo, the little places on the edges of town are emptying out, too, and most of those businesses aren’t fortunate enough to relocate.

Hotels along Reynolds have been abandoned, leaving only their dated 70s construction and bland window treatments behind (yes, the curtains are still hanging in the windows). Restaurateurs have moved out of their buildings, with no new tenants to take over their abandoned kitchens. Some areas of the city look on the verge of ghost town.

Riding around Toledo, I was struck by how low everything was, and I don’t just mean depressed economically (don’t get me wrong, the city isn’t dying—I refuse to believe that—though certain limbs are faring worse than others), but physically low to the ground. I have become acclimated to high-rises and skyscrapers, and that was the single most conspicuous detail I noted about my hometown that I had never considered before. So many one- or two-story buildings! I don’t mean this in a condescending way, but some parts of the city started to feel like a toy town.

I enjoy visiting Toledo. In addition to spending time with my family, it’s a nice break to take a leisurely drive through streets that feel practically empty; I don't feel rushed there. And it’s nice to walk down quiet neighborhood roads where stars can be seen at night, and you can hear crickets and falling acorns.

And, honestly, my nose appreciates the break. I mean, I have to admit that one of the first things I recognize when I’m back on the streets of Chicago is the foul smell. It’s that waft of sewage that drifts up from the manholes in the streets, or the sweet perfume of fresh urine, or that odd, stale McDonald’s scent that drapes certain intersections downtown. I’m reading Devil in the White City right now (fantastic!) and when I was reading about the dead cats and the sewage and the muddy streets I thought of that Swift poem, “A Description of a City Shower,” and felt like 19th-century Chicago and 18th-century London weren’t all that different. But then, today, when I was walking downtown and my nose was assaulted by a urine-and-moldy-Big-Mac odor, I thought, “Well, we may not be wading through shit, but you can never get away from the smell of it in a city with so many people, whether its 1889 or 2009.” Anyway, that’s the long way of saying that I appreciate the scent of pine needles and fresh grass in my parents’ neighborhood.

But after a short while away, the rumble of the city starts to call me back. The activity, the people, the events, the architecture—they all contribute to the overall seduction of Chicago. Chicago, you are a stinky city, and you’ve got lots of crime and homelessness and corrupt politics and frigid winters, but somehow I just keep coming home to you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lessons Learned while Driving, or Not Driving, as the Case May Be

Labor Day weekend did not begin as planned, which threw a wrench into subsequent weekend events, and left me both exhausted and drained when I returned to Chicago on Monday. It’s a wonder I even planned to leave the city at all this weekend, considering that jazz fest was happening. Family, however, is even more important to me than live jazz; plus, I felt an urgency to get out of town for a few days. After work on Friday, I rushed home, packed up my car with all my laundry and a few other things, put my key in the ignition and my car into drive and tried—-to—-go. But my car decided not to move. Stubborn and bull-headed, I managed to drive it to the other side of the road, but all the while I felt as though it were dragging something terribly heavy. Had my car been booted and I didn’t even realize it? You can't actually drag a boot, right?

With my car’s rear hanging precariously in the way of taxi drivers (I couldn’t get it any closer to the curb), I stepped out and took a look. Around the car, under the car. Nothing there. Then I noticed a chalky-looking streak marking the path from where my back left tire had been on the other side of the road, to where it now sat. Oh man, I’d drug at least one of my back tires clear across the road. I cringed at the thought of a bald spot. What in the world was going on here?

After a few seconds of staring at the tire with "WTF?" stamped on my forehead, I assumed, correctly, that somehow the emergency brake had gone on, even though I never use it. I climbed back into my car and messed around with it, putting it on, and taking it off until—-wa-la!—-it let go. "Home free!" I thought. But then it occurred to me that if the emergency brake had gone on all of its own accord before, it might do it again. So I played with the brake a little more to make sure it was really, truly unstuck. It wasn’t. It got stuck again and this time, no amount of pulling the lever was going to release it. So, I dialed AAA for a tow, and called my mom to tell her I didn’t know when I’d be able to get home.

I immediately scrambled to unload everything I'd just loaded into my car before the tow truck arrived, since I had no idea how long my car might sit in a shop. When Alfonso arrived (that was the name of my tow truck driver), he was convinced that my brakes were simply frozen because I don’t drive my car enough, so he attempted to roll the car back and forth to unstick them. All this served to do, however, (as I was later dismayed to find out), was bend my brake drum and cylinder (which I may already have done trying to drive my car across the road). Soon he was towing my front-wheel-drive car from the back (since the back tires wouldn’t move), with the seat belt firmly holding the steering wheel in place.

On the way to the mechanic, Alfonso gave me a tutorial in Chicago’s grid system. He made me draw a plus-sign on the back of his AAA pad and mark off State and Madison, then he had me mark some other major streets (like North Ave.) and told me the corresponding block numbers of each. Now, I’ve had people tell me about the grid system before, but no one has ever actually showed me and all I ever really wanted was an explanation of the diagonal streets, and I got that, too.

All the while, Alfonso (can you tell I enjoy his name?) told me that he’d have me out of town by 8 pm. That was getting pretty late, since that wouldn’t put me into T-town until 1 am EST, but I just wanted to get my car fixed. In hindsight, it probably would have been better if I’d just gone home Saturday, but I just needed to get out of Chicago. Sometimes, you just do.

A few hours later, and several hundred dollars lighter, my car was fixed. I'd had a mini-heart attack at the price, but was happy that I could drive my car safely, and that I hadn’t been going 80 on the highway when my emergency brake decided to kick in, unexpectedly. And while Saturday may not have gone according to plan, and I may have been in the most wretched mood of my entire life that day (a result of sleep deprivation, accruing stress and, possibly, Friday's full moon), the last weekend of summer, as with the season as a whole, was not a total bust. After all, I got to see a lot of people I love. I did, however, wind up driving west on the toll road on Monday still feeling the shadow of Saturday and wishing I'd had a few more days of vacation to shake it off.

Thank God long drives tend to be therapeutic for me. I have to admit that by the time I rolled into the city, the familiar skyline sent electricity through me, giving me goosebumps (as beautiful things often do), and lifting my spirits. I remembered that one year before, on Labor Day, I'd timidly driven into town, terrified of the traffic and the distinct possibility of getting lost. My car loaded with belongings, I'd carefully made my way to the home of the roommates I'd met through Craigslist and prepared to start an internship I'd landed two weeks before. This Labor Day, I could see the contrast of my two selves as clearly as day and night. I am still as thrilled by the city as I was the first time I drove in from the Skyway, but I am far less intimidated. I felt such a rush as I merged into city traffic on Monday, turning up my music, aggressively weaving in and out of traffic, and cruising along the familiar highway until I was soon parked on the street below my apartment. There is no denying that I am not the same girl I was when I first came to the city, and that thought makes me smile again as I write this.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

“You Say Good-bye…”

A lazy Sunday was welcome after a weekend exhaustingly full of some of Chicago’s best food and entertainment (it had started with tapas at Ba-ba-ree-ba on Friday night, and then never ceased!). So, Wendy and I relaxed during a casual brunch at Tavern on Rush, filling up on coffee and eggs (or stuffed French toast, in Wendy’s case) and afterward shuffled back to my place and napped before heading to the beach for a leisurely afternoon of reading and sunshine.

I was disappointed that when we reached Oak Street beach we found it completely blocked off and littered with white tents (I didn’t even bother to find out what event was going on), and trucks lining half the waterfront from Oak Street to North Ave. The lake didn’t seem too happy about the intrusion either. I have never seen the waters of Lake Michigan so high before. She caught walkers off guard as she swelled and exploded over the concrete edges barely confining her. Her waves puddled around the tires of the dirty trucks along the shore. We watched an unsuspecting photographer become completely engulfed in a wave, trying to protect his camera as he jumped away two seconds too late. The lake was being quirky, unpredictable. If anything, I’d say that Lake Michigan was being a bit sassy.

Wendy and I were enthralled, and I was feeling dramatic like the body of water dancing before us. My emotions felt like the swelling of the lake, spilling out of their confinements. Shivering a bit in my sweatshirt, I had to accept the end of the summer, and the conclusion of Wendy’s visit. Her trip had been a much-needed pick-me-up, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to face the closing of one chapter, and the opening of another. Wendy and I sat there together, entranced by the lake, Wendy providing sound words of advice, me grappling with months’ worth of emotion. Endings are always difficult, and change is scary, especially when you feel as though you are facing it alone. And later, after I saw Wendy off at Union Station, I cried on the way to the El. My best friend was leaving town, and the summer was over.

Saying good-bye to the summer meant saying good-bye to KT, which I did, for the last time, the very last night of August. Monday night found the two of us on the lake shore. That night, the lake was calm, pitch-black. I gazed out past the body of water, allowing the moment to wash over me, feeling every word, every sentence sink into my core, my heart wrapping around the closure I’d been awaiting. While little pieces of me still cling to the past, to what was, to a relationship that began the summer full of happiness, I have accepted the end result and am happy to leave it behind with the warm summer nights. I finally feel fortified to face the fall and welcome the changing of seasons.

“…I Say Hello."

Improvisations and Inconspicuous Nooks

While last Saturday was largely controlled by the wind—as in, we just went wherever it took us—we did purchase tickets to Second City that morning. We had vacillated a bit between the Green Mill and Second City. Since Second City was something totally different from the kinds of things Wendy and I usually do together (jazz and cocktails being an old pastime of ours), and because it’s such an authentically Chicago experience (not that the Green Mill isn’t), we opted for improv.

Neither of us had been before (yes, it, too, was on the laundry list of things to do), and we didn’t quite know what to expect, since we were going to one of the amateur shows. We actually enjoyed ourselves very much. We walked several blocks to Old Town, then after riding a couple sets of escalators and walking up a few stairs, we were at Donny’s Skybox.

As you wait for the show to start, they play this funky mix of music, where you think one of your favorite songs is going to play, but they tease you with only a few measures before fading into another favorite song that you think they’re going to play in its entirety, but they just keep mixing on you. It was actually kind of annoying. Anyway, as soon as the actors arrived on stage they asked a few people in the audience what their names were, where they were from and what they did for a living, and then worked it into the performance in various ways. Except they didn’t use mine. I suppose I’m too boring for them. They couldn’t even think of anything funny to say about what I do for a living. I should have told them I’m a biographer (someday, someday…). That would have been far more interesting than what I actually told them. But I’d rather be ignored than ripped to shreds, so at least there was no risk of the latter.

While some of the “skits” fell flat, taking weird twists that just weren’t that funny, most of it was really quite amusing. The only truly disappointing part of Second City was that it lasted under an hour. It was over before ten o’clock, and then Wendy and I weren’t sure quite what to do with ourselves (it was too early to go out). We strolled through Old Town, and were contemplating Cold Stone, when we stumbled upon the Fudge Pot just before it closed. Haha, I don’t know whether this was a lucky or unlucky find—the chocolate is delicious! Plus, the guy behind the counter told me that I have the name of a movie star when he took my credit card, so that didn’t hurt. I laughed at him, and shared some of the rude nicknames my last name has inspired throughout the years. Soon, we headed back to my place to look up a good cocktail lounge on Yelp, determined not to wind up on Division Street.

Well, after a little research, we changed into our heels and were soon at an inconspicuous nook close to home—the Zebra Lounge. It has a great atmosphere, with dark lighting accented with strings of pink lights adorning the walls, and excellent Lemon Drop martinis. It’s a small place that most people don’t know about, so you don’t have to worry about the craziness of the bars on Division. Unfortunately, the piano bars around my neighborhood seem to be lacking an essential element—the piano. Both the Zebra Lounge and at Jilly’s (I don’t recommend the latter to anyone under 40) claim to be piano bars, but they only have electric keyboards. While the singer at Jilly’s is actually quite good, I was completely nonplussed by the one at Zebra Lounge. He had a range of about three notes, and he, like the music at Second City, couldn’t seem to complete on song before fading into another. He marred some favorites like “Benny and the Jets,” and “Smile,” but it was quite loud for such a small place, so his singing became somewhat lost in the conversations. It was a nice place to sip cocktails for an hour, but it emptied out before midnight, and I was a little aghast at the bill. But I would definitely go back for a martini with friends.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

All the Excitement of Vacation, All the Comforts of Home

Some people who’ve lived in Chicago their whole lives laugh at me for being so enamored with the city. But I don’t care. What’s the point of living in a place that you hate?

One of the things I love most about Chicago is that I can travel to another Chicago neighborhood, spend a day there and feel like I’m in another world. But then, when I’m exhausted and my feet hurt, I can hop on the El and step off one block from my apartment, come home, and crash in my own bed. It’s all the excitement of vacation with all the comforts of home.

That’s how I felt when Wendy and I spent half the day in Chinatown on Saturday. Once again, Chinatown was one of those zillion things I’d been meaning to get around to doing, but hadn’t managed to peel myself out of the doldrums of break-up residue long enough to do. It’s conveniently located right off the red line, and you can see the characteristic square archway from the platform. My appetite was outrageous on Saturday, perhaps because I was finally starting to get over my August head cold, and I knew that we were headed in the right direction to quell my hunger (mmmm, Chinese food…).

My advice to you if you’re headed to Chinatown—tread lightly, but don’t carry a big purse. The first, and by far the best, shop we walked into in Chinatown was chock full of breakables, with itty-bitty aisles. No, I didn’t bust anything, but my purse threatened to knock every rosewood Buddha and porcelain elephant off of its shelf. It wasn’t long before I felt quite closterphobic in the shop, and was ready to bolt out the door. We took our time moseying in and out of a number of other shops on Wentworth. Wendy introduced me to the wonderful world of lychees, and we got all sticky eating them on the way to dinner. We found a restaurant (take your pick!), and sat down to some hot tea, crab Rangoon, orange chicken, and assorted dim sum. I stuffed myself and I’m not in the least bit ashamed of it. It was thoroughly delicious.

Even though I wasn’t sure there was any room left in my stomach, we decided to head over to the lone, rather out-of-place Vietnamese restaurant for some Vietnamese coffee. I just remembered how delicious it was when Kim took me for pho and coffee in Minneapolis; I completely forgot that the coffee had dripped from the press pot for the whole meal. So, grabbing a cup of hot milk coffee turned into a nearly hour-long affair. Growing impatient, we started a coffee drip race, which I was bound to lose before it even began. Wendy’s coffee was ready ages before mine stopped dripping. But all that coffee and condensed milk tasted fabulously worth the wait.

After a set of very bad-teethed, unworldly men sat down next to us and made a spectacle of themselves, I promptly paid our check and we were off to purchase a few things before grabbing the El back northward. Wendy did an impressive job of haggling down the cost of my merchandise, and we both left feeling pretty darn happy about the items we'd purchased. We were also quite happy to hop off the El so close to my place, and veg out in front of Sex and the City before heading out for the night.

Spontaneous Saturday

Saturday was a day of stupendous spontaneity (okay, okay, I couldn’t resist the alliteration). But seriously, I can be a little anal when it comes to planning, so it was a welcome break from the norm to only have a vague sense of the day when Wendy and I set out, and to let the city and a whim take us where they might.

It was a gorgeous morning. A light autumn-esque chill was in the air, which made for the perfect relief to a very sunny day. I decided we’d walk to the bank (about ten blocks away), rather than taking the El, and Wendy was perfectly agreeable to the suggestion. We stopped in Starbucks on the way for a caffeine jolt as we headed southward. There’s a beautiful park on Dearborn (sorry, I don’t remember exactly where it was located). We strolled through, admiring a fountain set in the midst of a circular garden. I felt the familiar twinge of sadness noting the homeless asleep in the grass (some on the sidewalk). We left them to their slumber and kept walking.

Farther south we found ourselves in River North, near my old workplace. We stopped for pictures on the gorilla bench outside Rainforest Café, and then paused briefly so that Wendy could take the half a second it takes to observe the Rock N Roll McDonald’s. About a block from the bank, Wendy pointed out one of many signs for Navy Pier. She had never been there, and I’d never been there when it wasn’t freezing cold (I’d been twice before, the first during my first trip to Chicago ever, in February 2002—brrr!). So, that decided it. We directed our course eastward, and from then on the day was filled with two best friends sharing a laundry list of fun things I’d been wanting to do in Chicago, but had either forgotten about, or just never gotten around to doing.

Headed east on Illinois, we approached a used book shop and the Jazz Record Mart that I’d seen a number of times (usually on the way to the movie theatre), and in which I’d always wanted to get lost. We had no schedule (that felt amazing!), and were both eager to stop inside. We agreed that we could have spent hours in the bookstore, but restrained ourselves, deciding that Navy Pier trumped used books that day. We stopped inside the jazz shop next door, where endless shelves of CDs, vinyl, and books greeted us. I love jazz, and Wendy knows it even better than I do, but that store made both of us feel quite limited in our knowledge. It was a plethora of jazz greats big and small. We agreed that our friend Kim would have loved it. I toyed with the idea of buying some Miles or Madeline Peyroux, but again restrained myself. I can go back and buy them later if I change my mind.

Many blocks later, we immersed ourselves in the dense crowds of tourists enjoying Navy Pier. Giddy like kids, we headed toward the ferris wheel for views of the lake and the city. We felt like we were at Cedar Point, except without the rides and the lines (which leaves the lake, the food, the excitement, and the kiddy rides). After getting our picture taken beneath the wheel and boarding our car, we regressed a few years, trying to get our ferris wheel car rocking back and forth (we were not very successful), snapping a ton of pictures, and standing up in the car partly in spite of the posted signs telling us not to (okay, I did this, not Wendy). The views of the city and the lake were lovely. When we stepped off, we purchased our over-priced ferris wheel pictures, and stopped at McDonald’s for—you guessed it—happy meals.

If that weren’t enough excitement for the day, our day was only just beginning. We next headed to Chinatown, where lots of shopping and better food awaited us.