On Chicago

06 March 2015

The first two times I came to Chicago were for things that didn’t work out the way I expected them to: first a boy and then a job. And so I learned early in our relationship that this is a city that honors resilience and doesn’t believe in mercy.

One way or another, it was probably inevitable that I would end up in Chicago. Whatever that specifically brought me here was just playing its part. Eventually, my desire for a bold, busy city and my ties to rusty, working-class Midwest would dictate the choice of home base in the only place that has both.

This is a tough town. Its sprawling length encompasses highs and lows, and always has. It’s got a lot of work still to do, but it’s full of people who thrive on hard work, and, out of that, it builds a future. Or, at least, a chance, which is the best that most working people can hope for. It’s a city that believes in paying its dues at the same time that it doesn’t fully trust what it pays out is going to be justly compensated. And for good reason. The people here have always known justice is an imperfect human system. The people here have always known that there are painfully thin lines between hard workers, schemers and sinners. They usually forgive you if you have to cross them. They might even make you a hero for it.

I haven’t lived in the city very long and, at this point in my life, I am lucky to move mostly in its nicest areas—but something in it drives you to take it all in. When I can, I get on trains and buses I haven’t been on before. I look and listen. I read histories, past and present, of how and why people live here. What their struggles and successes are (they always go hand in hand). I pay attention to detail. Detail is where the stories are. Chicago preserves detail. It’s carved into its buildings as well as its spirit. The residue of years of industry and activity settles on the whorls and ledges. Take a train looping around the heart of the city, with a vantage point raised above daily street level life, and and realize it doesn’t take much distance to remember you’re in that same experiment as everyone else is now and has been before you were here and will continue to be after you leave: that experiment to see if we can create a great city in the middle of America, with nothing to recommend us but ourselves.

It’s not easy. There have been many broken hearts in Chicago and the city remembers every single one. A city that holds on so fiercely to its history doesn’t just forget. A city with such big shoulders never just shrugs. It takes in human suffering with a chilling calm, and adds each new instance to the records. “Let me tell you something,” our current president once said, “I’m from Chicago. I don’t break.” Therein is the perverse pride of everyone who loves to live in this rough, cold, demanding place. We don’t break. And, because of it, we do bold, foolish things that sometimes even work. Chicago never seems more itself than in the frozen tension right before spring, when the people are tired and determined, and convinced that, if they keep going, something better will happen. Even if it doesn’t, they’ll be proud of having pushed for something better. And, really, in the end, what else is there to be proud of?


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