Four years ago, I was in a cab headed north on Lake Shore Drive. Rather, stuck in evening commute traffic headed north. The television in the car was on a loop, playing the same half dozen videos every 10 minutes. One was a news report about the pothole situation in the city, another an ad for Jewel Osco. Maybe I will shop at Jewel or be irritated by the potholes, I thought. I looked at the window on to Lake Michigan, This is my home now.
I have been a Chicagoan for four years now – the same length it took me to earn a bachelor’s degree in Brookings. Next to that city (I lived there for a bit after college) and Pierre (my hometown), it’s the longest place I have lived. In fact, I haven’t gone this long without moving as an adult.
Chicago was never a location I expected to be in, although I have long been determined to live in a city. New York had always been the ideal location, but Seattle, Washington, D.C., Boston, Denver and Portland were contenders at one time or another. It wasn’t until after I returned from the Peace Corps that I finally brought my youthful dream of urban living to a reality.
The net I cast for a job after Peace Corps was wide, not wanting to limit myself, and while I ended up in D.C., the first job I applied to was in Chicago. It was at a non-profit with a mission I can’t quit remember now, but I was more excited about the prospect of living in the Windy City than the job itself. I started looking at other jobs, thinking maybe I will narrow my search to Chicago, and but eventually I landed in D.C.
Washington was not right for me from the beginning. I was still transitioning from Peace Corps, which means I was weird. I knew a lot of people in the city, but I had no intentions to stay there long. D.C. is great if you want to climb the career ladder in a profession that is rooted in the district, but my ambitions were unclear. It wasn’t really Chicago that took me away from D.C., rather a better fitting job, but immediately I kept seeing Chicago show up in random places. In signs, street corners, on beer glasses in Minneapolis restaurants. I felt reassurance that Chicago was part of my plan, and so I left Washington without doubt or remorse.
The first thing I noticed about Chicago is that people love it here. That’s not the case in the D.C., where most of the people I had met moved there because of career opportunities. People chose to be here, or they chose not to leave. It’s not a pretentious city (well, mostly), but it’s prideful. It recognizes its divide and yet does little to bridge it. It has the urban amenities of New York and L.A., but the Midwest charm of Iowa and Wisconsin. It’s the city I never understood I belonged to until I did.
“You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered motherfuckin’ city. A metropolis, completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big-hearted but cold-blooded machine with millions of moving parts — a beast that will, if disrespected or not taken seriously, roll over you without remorse.” – Anthony Bourdain
Four years have elapsed quickly. I’ve held two different jobs, will move into my fourth city apartment next month, ventured into new hobbies, adopted a dog, traveled to four different countries, seen nearly all of the city’s top tourist destinations, made great friends, entered into 30s, wrote a book, met and married my husband, and blossomed into the person all of the other places I’ve lived prepared me to be. Chicago isn’t just where I live, but it’s as much of home to me as South Dakota and Lesotho.
My favorite Chicago moments include running the 2015 marathon, singing “Go Cubs Go” as the white W flag is hoisted above Wrigley, seeing my idol perform a storytelling/dance show, the awe I feel at the sight of downtown anytime I bike or drive into the Loop, the night we went to the circus followed by dinner at Eataly and then a show with The Neo-Futurists, every Christmas, watching my favorite band perform, summer nights at Millennium, the long bike ride to the burbs, my bachelorette party and on and on and on.
By most standards, I am a Chicagoan. I avoid The Loop on the weekends, understand that one festival is enough for the season, never eat Deep Dish unless visitors are in town, contemplated a tattoo of five red stars, and get downright giddy when summer finally decides to show up. My identity with this city shows up in other ways. Sometimes the feeling comes when I am riding my bike through the neighborhoods right before dark or walking home from the train or leaving a party with good friends. It’s this rush of love and gratitude and wonder and astonishment. A kid-like voice pops up, I live here. I get to live here.
We may not live here forever. We have adult aspirations of a family and buying a home, things that are not unheard of but harder to do in the city. We may go closer to family. We aren’t sure. But, what I do know, is that Chicago is in my bones. It’s woven into my heart in ways that I don’t yet comprehend, and in 20 years I will likely have the mental capacity and stability, along with clarity, to write essays and essays about this gritty loveable city. Right now, though, I just love it and thank it for all it’s given me.