Monday, August 25, 2008

You're Up v. Chicken-in-a-Car-and-the-Car-won't-go

There is no reason I should ever move from Chicago.

Let me back up:

I just returned from abroad. Please hold your jokes.

The first place I went was London (via a stopover at the airport in Dublin). London is exciting. There’s Trafalgar Square (currently being used as mass meeting place to watch the Olympics), the British Museum (home to relics snatched from savages to better adorn Britannia) and that pub in Soho that I wanted to go where Jeffery Bernard and Francis Bacon drank. And indeed I went there, despite it not being the same pub with the same owner and Soho having gone “so long” as Bernard wrote before he up and died, the old drunk. Ah, London was grand. I even found a nice Brit edition of the book I am currently reading (Infante’s Inferno) and a hardback by the same author (Mea Cuba), which I can’t seem to find ‘round these parts.

A few days after arrival, the gang (a motley crew, to be sure) left and traveled under the water and to Europe proper, namely Paris. Ah, Paris. Paris is beautiful. There’s the Arc de Triomphe, which I climbed to the top of after walking the famed Champs-Élysées, and Notre Dame, which was nice from the outside at least, though I think I did the right thing not waiting in the interminable line, instead opting for the antiquity of the Église Saint-Eustahce and the stunning interior of Sainte-Chapelle. Neither of these was as awe inspiring as the church I wandered into while walking through Lisbon, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We stayed in an apartment on the fifth floor, complete with winding Parisian steps (might as well get the full experience) on a street in a busy part of Paris where any time of night one can go and get a great crepe and functional panini. And it only took until the last night to discover how fucking close we were to everything. Seriously, we were walking distance to the Seine, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the heart of the city. I discovered this randomly, after days of following the leaders and negotiating the nasty metro. The trains stink and are hot. They boast a little sliding window, which is open in order to offer the illusion of ventilation, but it is a small gesture in the face of the sweat, heat, and foul odors that are produced naturally when so many people cram into underground train cars.

My big regret was not getting to see the catacombs, as they were closed due to a trifling bank holiday. My smallest regret was that Shakespeare & Co., the famous bookstore, was a bust. Once it was the most proud of English language book shops, boasting the ‘20s ex-pats as customers and having the bravery to publish Ulysses. The link between that store and this is tenuous, and now it is a snobbish store without the merit (or stock) to act as such. The woman behind the counter, a Brit, was the only person in Paris who I found to be rude, and the volunteers (who have to pull a few hours in the store in order to spend the night among its upstairs "reference library" and in its filthy beds) were carelessly shelving books as browsers attempted to browse— the suckers/volunteers all the while huffing and puffing. Sorry that some people like to shop and spend the money that allows them to crash upstairs in the flee bitten socialist dystopia.

So, to get back to the theme of this post, it was while in France that I found myself defending my city, or at least appreciating it. A friend of a friend, actually a very nice bloke (to use a Briticism) seemed to be suggesting something about Chicago, though it is difficult to tell what considering the stammering British polite (while cutting) questioning along the lines of, “So Chicago, really… tell me, what is it… you know, why Chicago?” or something along those lines. I was standing in a town of antiquity, of vast beauty, of history, of art, a town fabled to be for lovers, a town revered by Francophiles from all over the globe, which certainly includes many people I know or have known. And I was being given the British roundabout in regard to my city. What the shit?

Here it is: I love Chicago. I occasionally hate it, and I often want to leave it, but I love it nonetheless. Nevertheless, I may leave but I often wonder if it ever would be for good. I’ve tried, or at least considered the possibility, and I fail each time. Every vacation I have ever gone on is a sort of recon mission to see if a city might seduce me away from the town that has its claws in me pretty goddamn deep. Vancouver is high on the list; Berkeley was pretty nice; Santa Fe would be perfect if it were only a dash more exciting. I’ve never been to New York City, so that remains to be seen. D.C. is a great town where I felt that I might make a home if I were so inclined. Seattle was static and Portland seemed like a city in depression—emotional and economical. Las Vegas was an illusion. Taipei was exotic, to employ an odd term, and wonderful and cheap and easy and friendly. San Miguel de Allende was a dream, a beautiful dream. All of these cities were and are amazing in their unique ways. None are Chicago.

I could live in London if I were a rich man. I could live in Paris if I were more interested in speaking French. I could live in Lisbon with ease as well (I’m getting to that). Hell, I could live anywhere. So why do I choose Chicago? I mean, I often say it chooses me, but let’s take some goddamn responsibility, please.

I grew up in the suburbs. The southwest suburbs to be exact, and while this can often feel as far from Chicago as Maine is from California, it’s a lot closer than it would be if I grew up in the northwest suburbs. Or Indiana. Or Ohio, which could’ve happened. Or Wisconsin (thank god for big fucking favors). No, I grew up on the ass end of Chicago, right near Harlem avenue, which separates the city itself from Summit, IL, a very odd little hunk of land. Come to Summit for steak burritos, shitty bars and the reek of rendered corn in the air. Drive a wee bit and you’ll stumble onto Resurrection Cemetery, where my grandparents (who I never knew) are buried and, contrary to local legend, where Resurrection Mary is not laid to rest. I grew up close enough to taste the air off of Lake Michigan. Though that air was clouded by plane exhaust from Midway Airport, it was still there and it was always promising. I knew the city was where I wanted to run to pretty much my whole life. The city was an enchantress just out of reach. It was home before I knew how to navigate its streets. Learning to do so became an obsession.

Perhaps this is why I cannot leave. I have spent so much time loving (and hating) this town that I can’t believe any other can truly compete. There are places we go because we want to see them, like Europe, and then there is home. Sadly, for better, worse, and all in between, Chicago is it. Even if I were to move, which I may someday—don’t rule it out—I could never really consider any other city home. I might move to another land, far, far away from the Hancock and Sears Tower and Lake Michigan and Rogers Park and Edgewater and all these northside nightmares, and I would still feel defensive when some European-cum-North Carolinian questions this toddling town. I don’t know… no one seems to agree or understand. Xtop moved away to KC, MO and DC fucked off long ago to be a citizen of the world. Carla shook off Chi and went where the air is clearer: Vansterdam. Only mi niña, who is a life long resident, seems to understand, though she, like me, gets that wanderlust look once and again. Who knows where it will move us, or if it will, or when? It’s hard to guess or explain, so I’ll stop.

As for the rest of the trip, we all packed into a shitbox sleeper train car that I will not discuss here because it is a tale too terrible to tell, though I could and will but only over a beer as that is the only way to effectively express the magnitude of the horror. Those who know know, and those who don’t don’t want to. At least not first hand. But we made it to Lisbon and that was worth it all. A wonderful town, maybe my favorite of trip. I did there exactly what I set out do on this trip (despite the obligatory sight seeing): relax. Living seemed easy over there, and there were nights of outdoor eating (and drinking) to the sounds of homespun Fado, and days of leisurely walking the cobbled streets with many a stop off for coffee and pastries, which are for sale pretty much everywhere you turn. And way too much smoking went on over there. Well, you know, I was on vacation.

To recap: London is exciting, Paris is beautiful, Lisbon is wonderful, Chicago is home. I was incredibly happy to get back to the great hog butcher of the Midwest (even though I have that fucking Carl Sandburg poem). I’m off today and back to work in the A.M. I shall go for a walk now, my favorite thing to do in Chicago, and marvel at the manner in which the neighborhoods change as does the weather if you give it enough time. That is, assuming I don’t get sidetracked at ye olde watering-hole.