I was last in Chicago three years ago with my then-husband. We then found bicycles in the crawlspace under my parents’ house. We dusted them off, filled the tyres with air, and used them to get around town. Pulling one out now, I walk it to the nearest bicycle shop.
I thought it just needed air for the tyres, but it turns out to be suffering from additional ailments. They promise of a ride-ready bike tomorrow. I make my way back to the rehabilitation centre for another quiet visit with my mom.
Afterwards, on my way into the city, I learn there’s been a big shake up of Major League Baseball’s operations in Sydney. It seems I left their employ at the right time as senior people have been cut lose in a restructuring. I’m a bit stunned by the news and feel for those affected, while I’m also glad it doesn’t impact my life directly.
Well … it may have one small impact. I’ve emailed one of the people who has been let go – asking about getting a ticket to a Cubs playoff game – now I know why I haven’t received an answer.
Anyway. The sun is shining, and it’s another beautiful day.
I’m excited to be meeting up with my good friend Laura from home, from Sydney. She’s been to a wedding in South Carolina and is attending a conference in Chicago; we’re meeting up for drinks and deep-dish pizza.
It’s so nice to be with her – it feels like a real little bit of home. Not least because she’s brought me Vegemite! I’d failed to pack some when I left, thinking it was probably more of a hassle than it was worth. But when Laura asked if there was anything I wanted from home I knew immediately that I really needed some Vegemite.
At the bar they ask for my ID – which makes me laugh and laugh. So ridiculous. The waitress goes on about how the police are cracking down on it, making sure bars are checking everyone’s ID – and her speculation is that they just want to be sure that everyone is carrying ID – like that isn’t a problem in itself.
We have some mad good chips at the bar then move next door for dinner. The pizza at Pequod’s is super – heaps of cheese but not enough to make you choke, and the tomato sauce has a really nice tang to it.
We speak of my trip, and Tinder dates, and the difference between European ‘walking distance’ and American ‘walking distance’. The latter demonstrated by someone from the wedding in South Carolina had insisting upon driving three blocks to a bar.
We speak, too, of my reading and meeting Robert Pinsky, and of the hard days of my trip.
And of the recent Coalition spill which has made Malcolm Turnbull Prime Minister of Australia. This is causing the conservative wing of the Liberals to lose their shit.
It is a really good evening – a normal sort of enjoyable evening out with a good friend. Afterwards we walk to Fullerton El station and then go our separate ways.
On the train home there’s a guy who may be speaking to himself or to someone on a phone – I can’t see if he is wearing an earbud. He’s loudly threatening that he’s ‘not going to play with your ass’ and about talking about fucking people up and of bringing his guns and of all manner of crap.
Now, he’s threatening to shoot the person he’s talking to (I’m pretty sure now that he is on the phone.) See, in most places I’ve been – Australia, Europe – the rest of the passengers would be like, ‘Who does this fool think he is? What ridiculous rubbish.’ But here, well, he could be armed. He could well get off this train and go shoot whoever it is he’s talking to. Or some innocent bystander who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As it happens, I did not get caught up in any shootings and make it home by 10pm.
America is making it hard for me to have kind and gentle thoughts about it.
Thursday 15 October (Chicago – Day 144)
The lack of any real jet lag is an awesome thing – I do credit Jet Ease but also just playing the mental game of it right. I switched to Chicago time as soon as I boarded the flight in Berlin, stayed awake on the plane and didn’t sleep until a normal, if early, bedtime on my day of arrival. Then I got up at a normal, if early for me, time the next day.
I had an email overnight from my old boss at Major League Baseball telling me about the retrenchment. He’s suggested people who might help with Cubs tickets – but I think, in light of the whole thing, it might be best to just let it slide.
This morning there are these two stories in The Chicago Tribune:
A man called Bunky (or something like that) has died. He worked as a salesman at Ralph Lauren but had become an escort to wealthy women and a host of fabulous fundraising parties including a Valentine’s Day tea where everyone had to wear red. ‘Only Bunky could make me wear red’ said one. He’d fallen ill at work – heart attack, gone to hospital, had surgery, complications and then died. He got half a page.
There is a new outreach program which helps the families of murder victims deal with everything from cleaning up the crime scene to going to ID the body, and navigating the police and legal system, etc. The overarching theme is that the city of Chicago is chockers with grief and pain given all the murders. It got a few more column inches than Bunky.
Now, I’m on my way to get the bicycle from the shop.
To get there I catch the good old #250 bus west on Dempster and get off at Niles Centre Road. The #250 was probably the very first public bus I ever rode on once I’d reached walking age. My family lived in the city until I was six months old, so I guess my Mom may have taken me someplace on a bus before our move to the suburbs.
It’s one of those funny things – many things have changed in this area since I left in 1990 and then there are other things which have remained exactly the same for 30 or 40 years or more. Including that the bus which runs from downtown Evanston, then up Dempster Road to points west is the #250.
I get off the bus with a young woman who is met by a bloke who greets her with a sad face and the announcement: ‘I’m so hungover.’ I’m amused.
I collect my bicycle, it’s a 1979 Schwinn Breeze – a single speed bike with a step-through frame, coaster brakes, and chrome mud guards. It’s a classic and a thing of beauty. The service plus a new helmet, light, and lock costs me $106.
A young guy working at the shop notices that the bicycle was originally purchased from them – it has a little decal on the downtube for Al’s Cycles. Larry, the other man in the shop today, has worked here since 1974 – so he may well have prepared it for sale back in 1979. Funny.
I ride home through quiet residential suburban streets. It’s so good to be riding again, really good. Now the bicycle is parked in the backyard and a bird just landed on the handlebars.
The area where my parents live is home to many Jewish families of various denominations and their synagogues. While I’ve been here I have passed quite a few of them – and there’s this to say for America – none of them were deemed to require the active protection of police or the military. The only Jewish place I visited in Europe without men with guns stationed outside was the Jewish Museum in Dublin, but even there I had to ring a bell to gain entry and the person who opened the door gave me a good looking over before letting me inside.
I ride into the city to meet a friend from high school for dinner – it takes about an hour and a bit, about the same length of time if I had taken public transport. I ride along the North Shore Channel – which we always called the canal when I was a kid – to Lawrence Avenue, taking a left, then a right into Clark Street. It’s funny, all the places I didn’t ride when I lived here. Of course, the infrastructure is much improved.
My friend arrives very late but is apologetic for it. The food is Mexican and good but not amazing. We have a nice catch up and speak of many things. But I think if we lived in the same city, we probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time together. She has a young son and I tell her of the working-holiday visa Americans are eligible for in Australia – as a thing as a thing to keep in mind for him when he’s older. She’s keen for him not to limit his life to the United States – which she’s quite sure is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s frankly nice, for me, living in Australia to simply have the distance, to be removed from it – the violence, the corruption, the disconnect, that she sees happening around her.
Friday 16 October (Chicago – Day 145)
I’m not riding today because its less than 10* Celsius, and I don’t have Chicago blood anymore. That means I’m on the train instead. There are a couple of German tourists here, and it’s nice to just hear German again.
Loads of Chicagoans are riding today, though, and it’s good to see.
The funny thing about Chicago is that the pattern of the place is familiar to me. The basic layout and feeling of the city hasn’t changed since my childhood and youth.
Some places have remained pretty much the same but then there’s all this new stuff and changed neighbourhoods. So, New York Bagel & Bialy is exactly the same as it has been since I was a kid. But Poochie’s – the hot dog joint where my dad took me after my Little League baseball games – has moved, while retaining it essential Poochieness. These businesses are in Skokie, quite near my parents’ house.
Meanwhile, Evanston is, as ever, a place of ghost-buildings. On some plots there are two ghosts. Where there once was a supermarket, followed by something associated with Northwestern University, there is now a retail complex with a cinema. Dave’s Italian Kitchen, a Hertz Car Rental, and the first Chinese restaurant I ever ate in are all gone. Replaced by more retail with maybe commercial or residential space above.
The train delivers me to Belmont Street. A place I spent a tonne of time as a kid – well, a teenager. This was where the alternative youth of the north side would gather. We would loll around in our Doc Martens and leather jackets. We’d sit in the cafes and diners or use our fake ids to get into select bars. When that didn’t work we’d spend out nights at Medusa – an underage club. If we were skint, we’d sit in the car park of the Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. Like everywhere else in Chicago – it’s the same but different now. The places we hung out are mostly gone, the residents are richer and straighter, but something of the vibe remains – sort of. But, then, maybe that’s just the ghosts I bring with me.
I head to Intelligentsia on Broadway for a macchiato and oatmeal raisin cookie. Service is crazy slow for no discernible reason. I am reminded of Laura saying how slow service was at the Australian café in Detroit. Maybe it’s because they are making ‘artisanal’ coffee, so, they must do it slowly; I think they may polish each bean, and carefully weigh everything. I am left thinking how they couldn’t get jobs – or keep them – at Coffee Alchemy or any high-volume, quality café in Australia. It’s fine, though, the coffee. More a piccolo – a little bitter, but good.
I’d read about The Day Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert Nearly Killed Me – a one-woman show by Angie McMahon. Attending a small comedic production seems like a very Chicago thing to do. As I haven’t lived here in nearly 30 years it’s good to remember to get out and do the kind of tourist stuff, not just get sucked into hanging out at my parents’ house.
The show is being staged in a wee space on the first floor of a random building near Belmont Street. I think there used to be, maybe still is, a bar in the basement of the same building. I remember drinking there a decade ago, maybe longer, and that it was impossibly dark.
The crowd is small, and many may be friends of the performer. I think that being able to comprehend eavesdropped conversations makes the setting less intimidating than it would be in France or Germany or anywhere I don’t speak the language. And I feel less lonely than I would were I in a cone of incomprehension.
The show is funny, and quite good. It’s a telling of how, when Jon Stewart announced his Rally to Restore Sanity Angie noticed that no-one else had begun a satellite event in Chicago, so she started a Facebook page and then organised a rally which then went kind of really horribly.