07 August 2009

Much Love to My Chicago

Since I'm leaving for LA in fourteen hours, I wanted to dwell a second on some of the things that I love about Chicago. It's easy to croon about a place you're leaving (or one you've already left), but harder, I think, to stay faithful to that city over time as the chaos flows, inefficiency blooms, the humidity takes away your breath. Just as well, since Chicago's redemption hides in a secret reservoir while your memory erodes, unable to keep up with the speed of culture in this city as condos replace vacant lots, the Third Coast Café sheds its mirrors, rescinds its 24-hour service and becomes a mediocre bar for lazy Gold Coast Yuppies; the West Egg becomes another sushi restaurant with dark décor and red lanterns; ghettos become gentrified with tall, stylish apartment buildings with glass doors, stainless steel fridges + broken-in concierges. And somewhere in the middle of this acceleration, there's you, always five seconds behind the street lights.

So, I offer no apologies, pretend to speak no voice except the one I hear inside. This isn't a threnody or a panegyric. It's a pause button on my world, glazed in the blurry images of a protean city that still moves me + still breaks my heart. After all, it was in Chicago that I first:

1. Had My Sexual Renaissance. After losing my virginity to Julie Cressey in 11th grade at some crappy party in Encinitas, I moved to Chicago, my insides fully ignited with strange lust. In the next three years, I made out with more girls than in any other period of my entire life: white girls, Indian girls, Jewish girls, Greek girls, latinas, girls from my poetry class, Guatemalan girls I met at the Century Mall where I worked for the summer selling sun glasses in 1993. I was childish, arrogant, impulsive, cocky, gregarious, creative, passionate, the very definition of a heart breaker, not to mention a mother's worst nightmare. But in those three years I also learned so much about love + betrayal, sex + plateau, desire + emptiness. It fundamentally changed who I was.

2. Discovered the Smiths. In Del Mar, my friend Leta, had lent me her tape--by that I meant I'd stolen--"Louder than Bombs." When I arrived in Chicago, I finally came back to Rock music after falling in love with Brahms Piano Quartets, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerti, Mahler Symphonies, Chopin Impromptus + Bach's Cello Suites at Interlochen where I was studying piano. But Chicago brought me back to the artery of rock, back to Johnny Mar riffs + Morrissey choruslines, back to Manchester post-punk + even fake Doc Martins (because I couldn't afford the real thing). Between "Kill Uncle" + "The Queen is Dead," "Your Arsenal" + "Strangeways, Here We Come," The Smiths became the soundtrack of my adolescence, the very music of Chicago.

3. Started Smoking Camels. Yes, much of this is related to falling in love with the Smiths, being in high school, riding the El + making out with a bunch of girls with exotic names, but the first time I bought a softpack of Camel filters at this musty Chinese restaurant on Broadway street, right in Little Vietnam (figure that one out), I was 17 and I felt so hardcore buying my own cigarettes, and even more hardcore smoking out on the street. Ditto with the half-full box of Camel Lights that the Regina Dominican class president passed me at a Loyola Academy football game after offering me a sip from her covert flask, a gesture that felt almost Mephistopholean. Smoking made me feel bad, foreign, urban, mature, complex + of course, rebellious.

4. Volunteered for Americorps + Got My First Dose of the Urban Education Crisis. Teaching English + Spanish to black + Hispanic kids at Cameron Elementary School for the Center for Urban School Improvement, I learned first hand how fucked up urban public schools in America are, a series of interconnected problems involving hostile/indifferent parents, frightened/stultified/overwhelmed teachers, ineffective administration support and enforcement, poor funding, family drug addiction, single-parent households, dangerous neighborhoods, teenage pregnancy, you name it, public urban schools have got it. I can't say I actually made a difference, but I can say that I formed life-changing relationships with people that have moved me and taught me, and maybe I helped a few students become better readers too along the way.

5. Went on to New + Exciting Adventures from Chicago.

These included:

Moving to college for the first time when my Dad and I drove to Oberlin College in 1994
Moving to South Bend to get my M.F.A. at Notre Dame
Moving to Buenos Aires with LB
Moving to LA with LB to start my PhD at USC

6. Saw Scottie Pippen Play at the Old Chicago Stadium. And he was better than people remember + more graceful than a crane.

7. Learned the Gift of Self-Reliance through the EL. It's not the "L," it's the fucking El, which stands for Elevated platform, putos. And I learned about freedom + adolescence by riding the El, sometimes late at night, sometimes early in the morning after studying at the Third Coast Café. For the first time since my childhood, I didn't rely on other people to get around, not girlfriends, classmates, parents, my crew, Debate Team coaches, no one. And I fucking loved it. I could go from the pristine lawns of Winetka to Evanston, from the South Side to West Side, all by myself + whenever inspired. I had never had that kind of mobility before.

8. Experimented with Drugs. A little LSD, tons of pot, some alcohol, even nutmeg + banana peels once (my brother and I were trying to follow recipes from the Anarchist Cookbook but to no avail). Chicago was a laboratory of self-exploration + Northwestern's campus was my hajj.

9. Wrote My First Mature--and Totally Sucky--Poem + Journal. Actually, the poem was inside the journal + I'm pretty sure I was trying really hard to make a political statement about the savagery of war by juxtaposing Caligulan slaughter to a side salad. It was a really bad double entendre on the classic Caesar Salad. Yeah, I know. Don't even say it.

10. I Saw My First + Also My Most Last Musical So Far. Those would be Les Mis + Wicked. I went to "Les Misérables" with my Dad, dressed as a pimp (I had to borrow one of his Miami Vice Jackets + my hair was slicked back for the hell of it), and cried so much that he actually asked me if I was okay (I had a lot of pent up emotion because we weren't getting along well during that time). I went to "Wicked" with LB for my birthday in 2008, which ended up being one of the raddest birthdays of my entire life so far.

11. Went to My First Major League Baseball Game. My dad and I saw the Cubs, and just like in a good sports flicks, the home team came from behind in the final inning + people gave each other high-fives, screaming, drunk on cheap beer. The merriment was viral. This was probably the manliest things my dad I did together as grown men.

12. Read Poetry at My First Café. It was a terrible poem, + I read it to a group of cynical teenagers at the No Exit Café, all of them trying harder than me to act like Beatnik geniuses. Geniuses they weren't. Beatniks either. But they were a tough audience. Sometimes, though, you have to walk through fire to understand how much of your writing should be burned. I did. And it was a scorching mess.

13. Fell in Love with Kandinsky + Chagall. My Saturday tradition was taking the El to the Art Institute of Chicago + spending literally hours looking at "Painting with a Green Center," "The Praying Jew" + my favorite mosaic of of all time, "Chicago Windows."

14. Experienced My First Racial Slur. I was walking down Clark Street, back when the Rainbow roller rink was still there. When I was halfway across Lawrence, this car raced down the street + came three inches from hitting me. Instead of apologizing, the driver (a black woman) shouted: You stupid white boy! You stupid white boy! Get the fuck out of the street, you stupid white boy! I was shocked since I'd had the right of way + also I was halfway across the street before she accelerated. But then one day, I reversed the color in her statement + I saw what's up, and to be honest, it hurt my feelings.

15. Danced in the Streets When There Was Traffic. Almost as if in response to #14, one evening when I was still in High School, I was walking with one of my best friends, Sebastien, when we realized that the traffic had come to a sudden halt on Michigan Avenue, strangely enough, a block or two from the Art Institute. By the time we made it to the traffic jam, we saw several hundred people just shaking it + dancing to some African Drums + a Brazilian Band playing music illegally in the middle of the street while cars parked, passengers looked on, stunned. We jumped right in and danced: white people, black people, latinos, Polish dudes, old women, tourists, drunk frat kids, it was crazy. When we finally stepped onto the sidewalk, a black guy turned to me and said Isn't it amazing how music can bring white and black folks together like that. I guess that's what I needed to see in order to believe in our collective humanity: art + music.

16. Went Out On My First Date with LB. Strangely enough, I was wearing a suit + I was late --I'm always late, nasty habit. I was wearing a suit because I also had an interview for an English Teaching gig in Japan and I was late in part because I always am, and also because I was buying a new pair of Kenneth Coles because I wanted to make the right impression, for my date, that is. This would be the one and only time I've ever truly fallen in love in Chicago. I hope it's the last too.