Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sweet Home Chicago

I’m walking along the sidewalk, hand in hand with two children, as the morning sun filters through the freshly budded trees and a gentle breeze finally welcomes the warm weather to the Windy City.  A recycling truck rumbles in the alley and a cable worker is in his box perched above us all. He notices the toddler looking up at him and waves with a smile. Ahead a woman walks a dog, I don’t know his name or hers for that matter, but we’ve shared words on several occasions and the children eagerly collect kisses from and offer pets to the friendly pup. An elderly woman sells churros and fresh mango on a stick from a vending cart nearby. She doesn’t speak English any better than I speak Spanish. We’ve managed to communicate with hand gestures, the five words we know in each others' native tongue, and genuine smiles over juicy fruit bites for two summers. The constant buzzing of traffic is challenged for its unconcerned audience by the newly returned birds. Above squirrels are busily preparing for the next winter as they conduct a trapeze act above the dumpsters and sprouting perennials. A passing vehicle honks the horn and I see a familiar face behind the wheel as Link proclaims loudly, “dar! dar! boo dar” (car, car, blue car).  I realize on our stroll this place reminds me of Sesame Street. That wonderful place of imagination which might as well have been another planet to my eyes watching from rural south Georgia in my childhood. What a wonderful community we stumbled into a few years ago. Perhaps I’m just waxing nostalgic due to our upcoming move… and perhaps that is inevitable. 

“Who leaves the city in the Spring?” I think to myself, contemplating and maybe even second-guessing our forthcoming departure. Our move day is close. So close, in fact, I probably shouldn’t be writing. There is so much to be done and so little time to do it, but I need the catharsis of this. The goodbye I may not get the chance to say one on one to so many parts and people of this city must be said one way or another. 

As J Bean and Link stoop to examine a cluster of dandelions bordering our park (yes, our park), I recall a conversation with Vv several years ago. The conversation led to the conclusion that, with the life she was carrying inside, some big changes would occur. We decided together I would retire from my career in private investigations and become the full-time at-home dad to our daughter while she pursued her lucrative career. He career involved travel but was still, by far, best suited to support our family as the sole income source. The only other option was for her to stop traveling and take a lower-paying job in Tampa where we would both work full-time after the birth of our daughter. Looking back, it hardly seems like a choice at all. We made this plan with the understanding we would live as nomads for a time. With project-based work we might be here for a few months and there for a few more. Our life would be exciting but challenging as we would potentially live in temporary housing in places around the world for a few years. We soon learned our first stop would be Chicago, and we had no way of knowing at the time it would become our only home for the next 5 years. Other opportunities arose, but the 6 months in London didn’t come to fruition and the Chicago project was extended time and time again. Eventually, Vv was able to latch on to a more stable full-time position with the company she had been consulting for and we knew we’d be in Chicago for a little longer. 

When we began the undefined adventure in a new city, I remember wondering how I would fit in such a place. I’m a country boy at heart, spending most of my years in one part of the southeast or another with a short stint overseas and a brief stay out west. I had lived in what I thought were big cities -- Columbia, Atlanta, Tampa -- but I was amazed at what the Second City had to offer and it’s sheer immensity. I was even more amazed that my provincial ways, non-traditional gender role, and even my southern drawl created no impediment to my acclimation to Chicago. I was welcomed into circles everywhere I cared to explore. Along the way, we made friends ranging from the twenty-somethings in our building working to launch careers as Treehouse (remember me when you’re famous guys!) to the doormen of the downtown building we first moved into, to the part time-SAHD/PH.D. student and the award winning documentary film-maker and mother. From fellow parents to single fun-loving adventurers, we met people of all walks of life. We rode the L, gazed at the bean (Chicago’s CloudGate), gorged ourselves at the Taste of Chicago. I hung out with DJ’s on the southside and learned how to match a beat. I prepared a meal for tenants of a women’s shelter with my aforementioned doctoral friend. I marched the streets in protest of inequality and managed to stay out of jail while occupying some space for a time. I ran the Chiditarod, a story unto itself which I have yet to write. I enjoyed fraternity with other fathers, especially at-home fathers, from all over the city and befriended the founder of the local SAHD group and later the president of the National At-Home Dad Network. I was welcomed by mothers in each of the neighborhoods we lived in and never made to feel out of place by them, in fact, several of them are among my closest Chicago friends. 

I learned the windy city has reason to be "windy," with the history and culture of this place, it’s no wonder we’re boastful (yeah, it has nothing to do with the breeze). Home to two MLB teams, a championship team in every other sport imaginable, parks like I never even dreamed of, and miles of lakefront the city was, and still is, a wonder to me. Then there is the food. Glorious food is a centerpiece of the city with two shoulders and I leave with the two chins to prove it. I sampled a little of everything. Duck fat fries from Hot Doug’s, Chicago style thick pizza with the sauce on top from Pizano’s, and assorted cuts from chop houses around the city. I enjoyed craft breweries and tap rooms, tapas bars, Ipsento coffee, sushi of incredible quality, hot dog stands, corned beef sandwiches from Manny's, huge slices after a Cubs loss, and Kuma's burgers just to name a few. I sampled wares at grills overlooking parks and skating rinkson top of buildingsunder buildingson boats and in the back of parcel trucks.  

I'll never forget my Chicago experiences. I’ve danced with my family to everyone from Ray Lamontagne at Pritzker Pavilion to the Black Keys (heard free of charge from a hill across the street from Lollapallooza) to Bill Opelka the street performer we befriended in the catacombs pedway beneath the Loop. I’ve enjoyed night clubs, fancy restaurants, dive bars, street festivals, bowling, theatre and theaters, Segway tours and bike rides, fantastic live music venues, kite flying near the shore, world class museums, botanical gardens, aquarium and planetarium. We’ve seen the water cannon blow a stream across the Chicago river, pondered the faces towering over us as we splashed in the Crown fountain, and we’ve noted the time on a summer day by the eruption of the Buckingham fountain on more than one occasion. Afternoons on the beach (a learning experience for a rookie father), mornings at the zoo and walks in the tropical oases of the many conservatories available even in the dead of winter.  I watched J Bean learn to walk in the Chicago Cultural Center, perused the Art Institute of Chicago with the tyrants, explored countless city parks accessible by all manner of public transit (a delight to the children) and we've been under the city in the many pedways and above it from the Hancock observatory and our first apartment. J Bean and Link are as familiar with unusual sights like men painted silver mimicking robotic dancing Michael Jackson statuespuppet theater from the mobile stage on a bicycle, or a drum line of young men armed with 5 gallon buckets and sticks as some children might be with the mail carrier. 

We spent our first two years downtown among the skyscrapers where we witnessed St. Patrick’s day parades including the green river, Stanley Cup fanfare, airplanes buzzing the Aon center during the Air and Boat show where we sat among the clouds and where Vv worked during our time in this town. After the hustle and bustle of the Loop, we moved to the neighborhoods and were lucky enough to join the gritty, flavorful character of Logan Square and then the warm, welcoming community of Irving Park. Each locale had its own appeal and I am glad to have spent time in such richly different environments.

In this town we’ve watched the snow fall for days, wondered when the sun would show its face again and shoveled our sidewalk like a good neighbor. Together we built snowmen, temporary monuments to the wonderment of the longest season, and watched them melt with anticipation of a Spring that will come one day. We’ve sledded down snow covered mountainettes at the local park, donned 5 layers of clothing for a 30 second walk to the car a thousand times, made snow shakes and pelted each other with snowballs. All those things were new to us, having spent the better part of the previous decade in Tampa Bay. 

Tampa Bay… a gem atop a glistening waterway. I’ll never forget seeing it for the first time. The place is like a vacation brochure come to life. It’s also a place where I have friends from years and careers gone by along with new friends I didn’t know when I lived there.  Tampa is a warm city where the sun will shine often and where we’ll never grow old and we won’t ever die. Isn’t that what we always think about a new place? I know I do. So why does it feel so bittersweet to be leaving this one? Because this town, this scary and intimidating metropolis, somewhere along the line became home and actually lived up to the feeling we get when we prepare to hang our hats in a new place. The grass is green indeed. Leaving in winter would have been a little easier, but the best things about this city go far beyond the temperature on a given day. It’s the people. 

In 5 short years we’ve met people who have had a great impact on us. People whom I hope modern technology and social gadgetry will help maintain the tenuous bridges of friendship as we journey across the country and back to the land of sunshine. 

I can’t get into a list of names, or I might never stop telling you of the super-moms, the neighborly neighbors, the bartenders with welcoming smiles, the kindly old gardeners, the postal worker who spoke Spanish to my children through the open window on many a summer afternoon, the volunteers at the park -- at least one who doubles as a super-mom and great neighbor, doing what she does for love of community never making a show of her selflessness. I can’t mention her husband, the gentle giant who exudes calm and always has an ear for a child. I can’t make a list of names to include the redheaded Irish woman who drank me under the table at a German pub or her husband quick with a smile and a laugh and handy with a bit of sincere insight on life and the meaning of it. If I listed that name then I might forget to tell you about the mother of two, who wears a smile like a badge and makes a mean horchata. I would be remiss to name them without naming the mom who takes pictures of everything, supports her children and her friends with a smile and a good listening ear. If I mentioned her, I’d have to talk about her husband the teacher and the conversations I’ve enjoyed with him. I can’t tell you about the SAHD turned sous-chef who shares my love of music and my interest in looking at the world a bit sideways. There is no need to name the friend, the one man, who taught me more about feminism than any man really has the right to do, but he’s the same one who became my steadfast buddy and confidant and one whom I shall miss most often I think. If there were time, I might tell you about the Italian father with dimples for the ladies and validation for dad bloggers or the young man who taught me about resilience in the face of adversity after his second stroke. Time being short as it is, I can’t mention the Jewish father who was quick to organize a night out to blow off some steam and quicker still to coordinate meal planning for a friend or family in need. I’ll miss the aroma of Cuban food in my foyer from the upstairs neighbor and the occasional sample plate delivered right to our door (especially after the smell of my burnt pizza filled our building). I’ll miss the Chicago Firefighters from station 106 who responded on more than one occasion to find the emergency limited to my own paranoia or burnt pizza, but who always took the time to talk with J Bean and Link and invite them to head down to the station to feed the coy anytime. The father I met, who was running in place and is now running in places shall remain nameless though I’ll miss our nights away from the children as well as playdates with them. The smiling faces of two “nannies” who just happen to also be great mommies can’t be put to name, but they know who they are. The teacher of my eldest, shall remain unknown here lest I forget another important influence in my children’s lives although she will come to mind every time J Bean requests Aladdin.  I’ll miss those morning chats with her and her teaching partner as the children buzz around anticipating a day full of learning and fun that I’ll hear about until bedtime. Many other mothers and fathers of this city and, in particular, this neighborhood will forever hold a place in my heart along with their children. 

The children. Nameless for now, though most will make a great name for themselves in the future, I suspect. I will miss them and their devilish grins, the pitter patter of their feet, their awkward proclamations, their insistence on another push on the swing from Mr. Eric. Their sheer enthusiasm for every day is fuel enough to power even the Second City and I’m glad I have my own Energizer rabbits to take with me or the loss might be more than I could bear. To me they are special, their potential unlimited and their future bright due to the caring and involved parents behind them. To my daughter, they are the friends that I wrote about above. When her pen meets paper for the first time and her own words find voice, the ink will spill bittersweet tears for these childhood friends and a city she’ll always remember. 

Goodbye, sweet home Chicago. Or better yet… until next time.

Here are a few of my favorite memories of Chicago in pictures. Thanks for reading!

The L. Skyline in the background. 

Sue at the Field Museum. 

View from Vv's office.
Manny's Corned Beef.
Botanical Gardens

The Bean.
Polar Bear at Lincoln Park.
Snowman in Millennium Park.

Green River.

J Bean and Bill Opelka in the Pedway.

Water Cannon at Chicago River

Da Bears

Da Blackhawks.... Stanley Cup Party in the Streets

Da Bulls

Da Cubs
J Bean at the Buckingham Fountain.

City Days

Link and Trains at the Botanical Garden

Spring in the City

Our own Sesame Street.

Blues Brothers and J Bean at Midway

J Bean at a CFD Firehouse

The L

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