I hate to admit it, Chicago, but I didn’t do you right.
You, the city notorious for your blustery moniker, influential architecture, and resistance to ketchup on hot dogs, were a place that I called my home up until quite recently. While I didn’t spend my childhood with you, I like to think I had we had our own version of “growing up” because the first time my foot hit your concrete, I was an oblivious kid with no sense of direction—geographically and figuratively.
Then by the time I was headed for Midway Airport with a nerve-wracking one-way ticket in my hand, I was something else, something like an adult. Maybe not the premium, high-functioning model with built-in backup plans and mathematical skills, but I was somewhere on the spectrum—a handful of models down.
You gave me a lot, Chicago, and now that I look back I wish I’d given as much in return.
I wish I’d explored beyond the handful of locales, the ones I was über familiar with: the ones where I lived, worked, learned, got drunk, and fell in love in. I wish I could look at a map of your seventy-seven neighborhoods, spread my fingers across it and proudly say I’ve set foot on every inch of this damn place.
I wish I’d eaten at Al’s Beef even once, since it was you, Chicago, that I renounced my vegetarianism for when I first got there. I wish I’d volunteered more—helped out in any way I could because you are so much more than the frostbitten winter and pounding gun violence those outside the city limits think of when they hear your name. I wish I’d been braver and made my voice heard since you were dripping with platforms and opportunities.
Right before I left you I made a bucket list. Some of it I scrambled to accomplish in the dwindling months when half-packed boxes and suitcases littered my apartment, some of which I never got around to packing. Since we’ve been apart, I’ve written a new list; it’s a list of things your current inhabitants and future residents won’t realize they’ll miss until they find themselves somewhere else.
1. Take one of the elevated trains that runs through downtown—the brown, green, orange, purple, pink—and lean your head against the etched-in window. Watch the way the car weaves in and out of the high-rise buildings touring the skyline from the inside. It’s a pretty cheap theme park ride that doubles as a commuter route.
2. Get lost in the industrial limbo of the West Side, south of Division Street, and find the warehouse with the acrobats suspended upside down. Walk north along the cracked sidewalks until you find the used books and tacos and thrift store sweaters.
3. Lean against a cement wall under an overpass at night with your friends, when the rain gets too heavy, and you have to shout to hear one another, and all you can see is dark orange light, and the water bouncing back up.
4. Ask your cab driver to take Lake Shore on your way home, so the last thing you do that evening is watch the skyline unfold on one side, and the lake shimmer beneath a couple of wayward stars on the other.
5. Take a deep breath when you’re in your subway station. Learn the smell. Memorize the damp coldness pressing into your nose, the metallic whiff of wet paint, and the jealousy-inciting aroma of Harold’s Chicken Shack in somebody’s backpack.
6. Appreciate beds that are too small but you’re forced to share with friends and lovers now and then—the cold air and echoing voices on one side of the window and the close hum of breath against your neck on the other.
7. Let yourself float completely in the murky water of Lake Michigan at one of the north side beaches, like Foster or Montrose, and drink in the summertime. Forget about all the chaos onshore.
8. Save all the paper bracelets you’re given at music venues; keep them to remember the times you’ve used false identification to get into a show that turned your body into a subwoofer and pumped your heart to the beat. Smile at the way it shrank and withered from all your adrenaline-filled sweat.
9. Have a favorite cheap, local place to get take-out then treat yourself to delivery when you’ve had an absolutely awful day. (Mine will forever be Crisp, the Korean chicken place on Broadway Street.)
10. Measure the city by the parks, alleyways, apartments, classrooms, restaurants, secondhand stores, libraries, bars, tattoo parlors, and bus stops that you’ve cried in, kissed in, or both.
Chicago, like many of my past relationships, there’s probably still a chance we’ll reunite here or there because of the memories and familiarity that bind us together. You’re one of the few my mother was always fond of, which means there’s even more hope for us than I thought.