Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Kinda Town?

It has now been twenty years since I moved to the north side of Chicago.  I made the move to go to school, where I did a poor job pretending to be a student.  Not many were fooled.  I lived for a brief two quarters of a trimester— wrongly labeled as such— in a dormitory before officially joining a group of bohemian idiots in a ramshackle apartment.  I was underemployed at that time and, within a year, unemployed.  It’s not fun to be unemployed in Chicago, but I still managed to smoke and drink and eat in diners.  I was young and foolish.  And now I am old and happier than I was then, but I can’t help but feel that the city is just not the same. 

I spent much of 1993 in awe of Chicago.  I loved the used bookstores on Lincoln Avenue, four within a short walk from each other, only one still standing.  I loved Wax Trax Records, which disappeared right as I arrived, and Lounge Ax, which closed a few years later.  And I loved the Red Lion Pub, which closed not long ago and has reopened elsewhere to relative glory.  I loved walking around Lincoln Park and Lakeview and, when I got a bit bolder, Uptown.  I would take the train to the Loop after hours and stare at the glass and steel.  I sat in cafés drinking refill after refill, trying my best to understand Dostoyevsky. 

I was so young!

Everything was exciting.  I was a kid from the suburbs.  I had grown up with the idea that the city (not the southwest part where I spent a lot of my time, but the north side) was this thing that existed very close to me yet was still foreign.  I wanted very much to be a part of it, to live a cultured life, to make my way in this urban setting that seemed so romantic. 

And twenty years have passed.  I’m older and, I like to think, wiser.  Today, Chicago looks ugly and cruel.  Sometimes obnoxious.  I hate the kids in my neighborhood who are merely doing what I once did: acting like college kids, reveling in their freedom, drinking and laughing and sharing the books and music and movies they think are important.  I hate them when they jaywalk.  I accelerate and honk my horn, hoping to scare them, demanding that they respect the rules of the road.  I hate their naïveté.  I hate that they respond to the city with the joy I used to know.

I hate that the last mayor fucked the city over with a parking meter deal so absurd Beckett could not have imagined it.  

I hate the crime.  Twenty years ago the city was more dangerous, but the crime now feels so intense.  It must be because I'm older and more aware of my mortality, but I react to each terrible news item with a sadness that I never felt in my twenties.  When I wrongly romanticized Chicago, I understood that crime was just part of the package.  Now I see it is as depressing, hideous, desperate.  I hate the reactions that the rest of the country has, the fucking stories everyone outside the city reads, the ones that make them think the city is a warzone.  I hate the way people characterize Chicago as a wasteland of political corruption and gangland horror.  I hate that they aren’t 100% wrong. 

I hate how much the city has changed. 

I know two things:

1.     I have changed as I’ve aged, so it is logical that I won’t feel the same as I did twenty years ago;
2.     No city ever stays frozen in time (maybe Havana), so it’s logical that my favorite bars, bookstores, and record shops will have closed.

I accept these truths but I don’t like them. 

Not long ago, I walked down Clark Street near Fullerton, a corner I used to visit regularly.  I don’t get around there much for various reasons, but in the time since I last went by I noticed that my old diner, The Golden Cup, was gone, replaced by yet another Thai restaurant.  Now, I love Thai food, but Chicago is hardly lacking in Pad Kee Mao.  But The Golden Cup, while just another in a long series of Greek owned diners, cannot be replaced.  What made it special?  Nothing, really.  It served predicable food (though the Monte Cristo was the best I’ve ever had).  But it was my diner, the one I went to with my pal Xtop, where we ate damn near nightly, where we met for Old Man Breakfast after I moved out of his studio apartment, where I would go after my shift at the Aspidistra, where I hung so many memories of the last good days of my 20s.  So yeah, it’s personal. 

And speaking of the Aspidistra… well, I’ve said it many times before but here goes another: nothing’s been the same since it closed.  It was the best bookshop in Chicago.  I felt that way before I started working there and my love of the place only grew once I became an employee. And when it closed, a big part of my life was gone.  Yeah, I only worked there for a few years, but it was still a sign that things were changing in ways I didn’t care for.

I tried to leave Chicago.  Failed.

I came back and started working for lawyers.  I made more money than I ever had.  I met my wife.  I finished school, this time acing all of my classes.  I began working as a teacher.  I started publishing a few poems and stories in the far corners of the Internet.  I began to take things a bit more seriously. 

And it’s twenty years later.  And I am happier than I have been in years.  My life is good.  No big complaints.  But since it has been twenty years, a good amount for reflection, I feel compelled to question whether or not I want to stay in this beautiful, rotten town.  

Of course I’m staying.  The town has its hooks in me.  I can imagine living elsewhere, but these dreams are always centered on the superficial aspects of cities I have visited.  It would only be a matter of time before the stores and cafés and personal landmarks would close.  And I’d be right back to feeling uncertain and daydreaming of better things somewhere else. 

But these landmarks are supposed to be transient.  Unless you are keen on being a vagabond, you have to put down roots even when everything else gets uprooted. 

There comes a time when you have to admit that it’s you.  Not the city.  Not the world.  Not the culture.  Not the technology.  Not the fashions.  Not the attitudes.  Not the kids.  Not the politics.  Not the times.  You’ve changed. 

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  God, imagine me still the twenty-two year old twat, dressing like a bum, holes in my shoes, chain smoking, spouting the dumb shit of my youth.  Depressing.  If I ran into my twenty-two year old self, I’d likely want to slap the fucker.  Self-centered, lazy prick.

So a lot has changed in twenty years since I’ve moved up here.  I’m not so dazzled by the city lights.  But I’m hoping that in twenty years I’ll be happy still to be in this ugly, glorious, loud, fucked up town.  If I am as conflicted, so be it.  One should be conflicted about Chicago.  It’s earned the ambivalence.