by KARA VANDERBIJL
Earlier in the year I had lived in a desert, right on the hem of that great impersonal thing they call Los Angeles. This taught me nothing, save that you should never live in a place solely for the weather. I spent long afternoons enclosed in stucco condos willing the mercury to drop below the seventy-five degree mark. It never did. Everything they say about Los Angeles is true, even when they’re lying.
As it turned out I did not live there for the weather, but left because of it. If youth is a never-ending summer then I wished to grow up quickly, to leave behind that blissful ignorance which forgets coats and umbrellas and boots and continually pads around in rubber flipflops. Or perhaps, as Saul Bellow says, the continental United States tipped over on its side one day and everything not screwed on tightly enough dropped into Southern California. We won’t know until the Golden State breaks off into the Pacific or until marijuana is legalized there.
Going west used to be the American dream, but people don’t go west to get to California anymore. Most of them run north or fly east, which I did to leave it. I do not wonder at the fact that so many people dream of living in Los Angeles. From my time in New York City I do not wonder that people dream of living there either. A pleasant sort of superiority abides with those who choose to live on the bookends of any territory, believing as they do that they represent what they enclose. What I remember most were gags of people in dark sunglasses with crisp newspapers and smart little European briefcases. These people I also saw in L.A., except there you only find crowds at Disneyland and individually wrapped in expensive vehicles on the 405. I have not seen the like of them since I left.
It was July when I discovered what they call the humid continental climate, a place far from the moderating influence of the ocean. Honestly, if Los Angeles is the far-flung wrist of the nation (neatly slit by the San Andreas fault), then Chicago is its stable pulse. Yet the Windy City may also be la belle dame sans merci — living with her, like living with a moody woman, creates tension in those of us who are too young to have seen someone live up to our expectations. She will make good on her promises; it may just take a few difficult winters.
But I came to her in the summer, and I first loved her for her revolving doors and broad avenues. In August the city smelled — not unpleasantly, more like air that has been contained too long — and I wore out my shoes trying to get to the tall buildings I saw in the distance. What this city does not have in meteorological charm she makes up for with shining jewels of buildings. Sitting on the Brown Line train at night for a quick trip around the Loop is much like reading a fortune cookie: you don’t believe in its power, yet you secretly hope that it is yours.
Quite simply, a woman likes to feel small now and then, as if she were her favorite compact and could fit into any pocket or purse. Chicago gathered me into the hollow between her great steel fingers and I fell conveniently into trains and buses. Even the shortest buildings made my six feet seem like a minute detail, and I knew that I would make them mine, having never felt more like a woman (a human) than when I was able to do what all humans live to do — look up.
I tried to appear blasé, as if taking a cab from O’Hare to Bucktown was something I did every day. But I had never been in a cab before and the driver probably noticed the signs: the fact that he had to tell me it was OK to climb into the back seat, the fact that I was unsure whether or not I was allowed to open my window, or the fact that I was slow in giving him directions. When we stood in the middle of the street and he pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, I crushed several dollar bills into his palm in exchange for his silence. He was the first person I met in Chicago and we sat friendly and happy a hand’s breadth apart, separated by a greasy plastic window. I did not know it at the time but this would describe many of my subsequent interactions with the city.
Early on, I studied maps with a feverish kind of diligence and acquired a primordial grasp of the city. Romantically, I latched onto impractical details like the date of the incorporation of the city and the history of deep-dish pizza. I was very green and very gauche and when I finally did catch a bus, I fed three dollars into the machine and made the lady laugh.
“Is this your first time?”
I nodded, foreign and clumsy. She spoke abruptly, but not unkindly.
“I can’t give you change. Next time bring the exact amount.”
The bus crawled along Lake Shore Drive, a long stretch of road between the lake and the city that I have now seen sparse and gray in the winter and blooming with flowers in the summer. People in the bus bent over books, chatted on the phone, closed their eyes. I pressed my nose to the window eagerly and wondered if it would ever become old shoe to see the city spread out, sunlight winking in glass windows, green lights promising adventures.
I soon grew to prefer the train. Since big cities are basically people stacked on top of people stacked on top of other people — a fact I often dismiss — it became important to claim ownership of what I could. Thirty miles outside of town I would find acres of cheap land for pennies, but like the other three million people I share this city with I could not think of anything more valuable than a seat on the ‘L’ in the morning, or perhaps a square foot of space next to the door. Having your own step on an escalator at the Clark/Lake station anytime between Monday and Friday would be an unspeakable luxury, one eclipsed only by that of not being touched at all in your transfer between trains. There is nothing that I would not give for the remote possibility of such wealth.
Not long afterwards, during a period when my wallet sat particularly thin in my pocket, I watched a man count out seven dollars from the cash drawer and hand it through the window with sympathetic, cordial professionalism. Right across the street train tracks rose on spindly wooden legs and I crossed on a red in exhilaration. Something must be said about holding everything you have in your hands, imagining for a wild second what would happen if a huge gust of wind took it from you. It is strangely liberating when your train ticket is worth more to you than anything else you own.
Midwesterners are a strange breed of Americans, or so I’ve been told; I do not believe I have seen any. Chicago quite literally serves as an oasis to the vast flat territory that lies beyond her limits, cleverly using the lake to lure people away from the harsh reality that they are, in fact, completely landlocked. Standing at the tip of Navy Pier looking out, you forget that you are not at the very edge of the world until you breathe deeply and — there is no salty air, only the dank odor of lake water.
A woman that I have seen performing on the train platform several times now can tap dance, whistle, play the guitar, and play her violin all at the same time. She is dressed like a tiny Asian man and always has a vase full of dead silk flowers nearby. Between songs she collects the dollar bills and crosses herself with them, touching them to her lips. “Gracias,” she says to those who stop and watch, to those who give her money.
Chicago, easily extroverted in the summertime, spills out onto humid stoops with beer and the beanbag game, an almost tribal ritual that I still have not fully grasped. Throughout July and August we would walk to the park in the evenings and leave only when it was too dark to see the children’s mosquito-bitten legs pumping up and down on the swings. Two blocks away, a few polyphonic bars of “La Cucaracha” beckoned from an ice cream truck painted rather garishly with figures of happy children playing with Minnie and Mickey Mouse. A kind man named Juan drove this truck, barely spoke English, and was generous with dollar soft-serve and brightly colored candy sprinkles. In those soft evenings everybody murmured in quiet contentment, but then it was still too early on for me to understand why I should appreciate the summer. We ate sparingly during the day, if only to gorge ourselves on fresh vegetables from the garden we had plotted between several brick two-flats. By the time summer was drawing to a close the humidity had repaired my skin from the harsh dryness of desert living, and my hair was shiny and thick from sunshine and platefuls of green beans.
In the months that followed, I would look back on those days and try to remember their truth in light of Tom Skilling’s hearty “It’s 20 degrees outside, but it feels like -4” and the somber necessity of a cashmere scarf. Really, it is no windier in Chicago than anywhere else in the continental United States, but this is only if you stand perfectly still in the middle of Lincoln Park. In tunnels and between buildings the wind never stops. You learn to pull your collar up around your ears and you learn to live without carrying an umbrella. You learn that the worst reason to stay somewhere is because you like the weather.
New York is one of the capitals of the world and Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic, San Francisco is a lady, Boston has become Urban Renewal, Philadelphia and Baltimore and Washington wink like dull diamonds in the smog of Eastern Megalopolis, and New Orleans is unremarkable past the French Quarter. Detroit is a one-trade town, Pittsburgh has lost its golden triangle, St. Louis has become the golden arch of the corporation, and nights in Kansas City close early. The oil depletion allowance makes Houston and Dallas naught but checkerboards for this sort of game. But Chicago is a great American city. Perhaps it is the last of the great American cities.
– Norman Mailer