A reader writes:
I'm a career Army brat. I've lived all over the Southeastern seaboard, Puerto Rico, and the Midwest. I've been to Catholic, public magnet, military, secular private, and plain old Midwestern public schools. My accent carries no distinguishing features, except for a bland patina of TV. I'm 22 and I don't have any friends from before college. The concept of a "hometown" means nothing to me except for the magnified insularity of a military nuclear family, packed into UHauls, sleeping fitfully in VOQs.
Worst of all, every neighborhood I've lived in (barring three years on a base) was a horrible exurban black hole of culture. My dad insisted upon buying cookie cutter McMansion after cookie cutter McMansion because we had to sell them every three years; we had to live in "growth areas" instead of places we'd actually, you know, enjoy living in. I plotted my escape through school and left without looking back for the University of Chicago.
City life was the best thing that ever happened to me. There are people! So many of them! And they don't only care about the Big 10! There are neighborhoods full of people who *do* care passionately about the big 10, but more importantly, you can avoid them. Hop on the train and zip right through. Zip along to one of many arty movie theaters, or endless music venues with bands that have are actually good, record stores where the employees know more about music than you do, or museums with world-renowned art. Hang out with bike geeks, or hard-drinking hipsters, or research nerds, or whatever your subculture of choice. My loneliness, born of mobility and exacerbated by exurban emphasis on personal space, was soothed by Chicago's density. People are actually nicer than my small town experience--they don't give you the stink eye if you're suspiciously foreign.
And Chicago has something very important that I don't: a strong sense of history. Its myth is reiterated every day in the aging El stops, gorgeous turn-of-the-century high-rises on South Michigan avenue, beautfiul facades from some of the country's greatest architects. Terkel, Royko, and Kotlowitz sing Chicago to us. Even the Cubs' misfortune has roots--100 years of them.
I got a job here after graduating, believe it or not. I live in a neighborhood where I can walk easily to Mexican, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese food. My building is almost 100 years old and lovely. I pay $440 in rent for an apartment a block and a half from the El, which delivers me to my office in 30 minutes (I do read the New Yorker and the Atlantic, though. Sorry.). Or, if the wind is calm, I can bike down the fantastically beautiful lakefront path instead. I can drink beer and see free jazz on Mondays, bluegrass on Tuesdays, metal on Thursdays, and booze hard without fear on weekends: my 24-hour Red Line will always be there to take me home.
Wednesdays are for therapy, though. I'm still an Army brat, remember? It's coming to the end of my fifth year in Chicago, and this is the longest period of time I've ever stayed in one place. I love it here, and I want to plug in. Contribute to the large and small histories made here everyday. Cultivate friendships for longer than a couple years. Have an easy, relateable answer to "Where are you from?" Nonetheless, my internal clock is complaining. What are you still doing here? it says. How are you still putting up with these friends? Seeing the same geography every day? Shouldn't you be taking off to South America or something?
I am resisting it. I want, desperately, to learn how to be a good citizen of my community and a reliable, long-term friend and lover. My roots have been seared off over the years; I am tentatively trying to grow them back. There's a lot of scar tissue there, but Chicago is patient. It's seen my type before.