It’s drizzling at dusk in Lincoln Square. Clutching my oversized blue and white umbrella I wonder at the number of runners that jog past, waterproof and intent on achieving endorphins. Were there always this many runners when I rented my little one bedroom apartment here 2 decades ago? I have done the same in my west side neighborhood, but with worse shoes and attire and a more woeful lack of fitness, stopping every few hundred yards to catch my breath. These runners seem more effective, not just at running but at life. The brown line train passes overhead as a runner darts between me and a staggering drunk who stepped out of a Frank McCourt novel. As the runner passes, he reveals himself as a slightly overweight man stuffed in to $80 lycra, with spongy hair bouncing. He speaks to his friend through his headphones, “But why do you have to go to Minneapolis twice?” A father dashing out of the sandwhich shop with his tiny son pulls him out of the man’s path just in time and rolls his eyes at me and smiles. Could the father be like me? A person who sometimes fails, who doesn’t have it all figured out yet? Who might not live in a refurbished 6 bedroom Victorian and make epic decisions regarding the artistic direction of an upcoming ballet? I hope so as I head north on the diagonal of Lincoln avenue towards the shelter of the Book Cellar where I will rummage between the aisles, looking for a book and eavesdropping on a poetry reading, wondering not for the first time why poets write such brief vignettes. I hope that not everyone my age gets what they want or even knows what they want. The poets certainly don’t.
The storefront I pass next looks like a small real estate office, but it is a dimly lit hot yoga studio, full of svelte bodies stretching on all available terrain to refresh and unfurl their limbs from a day curled up in cubicles. A man and woman next door are locking up their wine shop for the night, heading towards their self made dinner of a simple pasta and condo grown tomatoe sauce and steamed swish chard and arugula salad paired nicely with a 72 Chablis.
I am searching, grasping, staggering under my ungainly umbrella in the cold mist, bumping in to black cast iron light posts that have seen a hundred years of wanderers. I am a writer, I tell myself. This is why I cannot help but wonder at the lives of every passerby. This is why I do not know who or what I am. All I do is see and feel. Hard working artists who have accomplished all they ever dreamed possible probably stuck with their vision. They eschewed television and nature walks to hash out then reveal their life’s work to an audience hungry for substance. They set alarm clocks and embraced peer feedback. They had connections and trust funds and genuine gumption to accompany their talents.
But what of my people? The ones I left to come here. The ones who considered themselves lucky to have work each day and a couch and a beer at the end of it. Creativity is a luxury they would say, something reserved for weekends when working in your yard. I can’t unsee them or unlearn the lessons. The ones that told me what I cared about wasn’t useful so best reserve that for hobbytime. Since I do not see these people in Chicago, I look for other working people, the kind I also come from. The Polish woman pushing her toddler charge in a stroller who tells me her 6 year old waits for her return to Poland. The shopkeeper from India who shouts at his 20 something son for sneaking a cigarette during a delivery. These are also the kind of people my people were, not directors, lawyers, sommaliers and people who jog. You jog when you are trying to prevent your truck from rolling in a ditch, my uncle would say with a grin. Not when you want to relax. I can’t help but agree, and the lives of those people make so much more sense to me. They work hard and they die, leaving nothing but children as their legacy and that is a good life. How can I walk among Chicago now and try to understand it when I have been living in it for all of these years and can only feel its promise like a tourist? I am not home here, and yet my home is gone, all family members scattered to the urban and suburban realities of their choosing, no longer dependent on the bodega or farm or respectable trade to anchor them.
Would I be content to merge in to the Pine Barrens with a crossbow anymore than I am content to get a masters degree and summer home? Would I fish the channels of the bay before dawn anymore than I would appear at a conference and read poetry? I stand like a ghost in my town, left to observe and wonder but not to do, not enough to get done. It is my own doing. Upon planning my escape I forgot to plan my arrival.