Ode to Chicago
Even as I remember the first day I came to this city. I will always remember my last. The way the sun rises and falls cloaked by giants of concrete and glass. The verse would end and I would remember the metered portions and time of living on each side. From the West to the South and then the North, our journey around the compass was marked by friendships and struggles that looked very different. I imagine the city as one but with very unique and distinct parts. Just as James Baldwin could reflect on America from the vantage point of France. I am beginning to see my beloved city more clearly. Maybe I am writing this too early or too late as I am missing some obscure detail that I had loved to hate. But there isn’t much time for any of that now. It becomes very necessary for memories of time to take a bow to the present realities but if only for a moment let me wax poetic about the place that raised me and taught me how to love it’s beauty despite the warts. The city is not its famous buildings but the people. With beating hearts and hopes alive and compassionate and afraid this is the substance from which the Last Great American City is made.
As a capable artist I found myself heading into the last place I thought I would be, Chicago. Known for the cold I came upon a video of people on the streets and by the clothes seemed that layering would be the key. I arrived ready for art school full of promise and older than many of the other students. In 2005 I was 23 and way past the “straight out of high school age” yet I marveled at these magnificent buildings full of things that I could not afford and the homeless guy that wandered around the same block for 20 years or more. And the street preacher promises that hell awaited all smokers and the massive crowds that concentrated here to dazzle newly arrived onlookers. As the energy of the terminus of the city washed over me. Little did I know the love of my life would be found at the meeting of State and Madison streets.
Living in Humboldt Park had its perks for sure. The abundant and verdant nature of the park and people of all ages and races that gathered around. Proud Puerto Rican culture blended with many others on one way streets that led nowhere. But the downsides seemed to be many from being thrown against a cop car for “fitting a description” or shootings on our street, not to mention the obnoxious Riot Fest that arrived each year but has been since moved. Or the heroine addicts that gathered on the sidewalks in the early morning haze. We were taught the art of scarcity and how to manage very little. The magazine I started was breaking even and losing money as such yet there were values I began to learn. I started to run to the tune of 20 miles a week and we joined a community garden. The characters were interesting and supernatural encounters powerful. The people existed in an uneasy tension right outside the attention of a distracted city.
Were my heart rested and will always be the wide boulevards and subtle beaches and the pristine Promontory Point jutting out into Lake Michigan. Who I was becoming began to round into form. In the place where many of the world’s best leaders had been raised and born. The majesty of the beautiful black faces like mine worn with tragedy yet glowing with hope. The sheer magnitude of the work of planting a church continued and it hurt. I could be flexible as my other job was so. It had me lifting and moving appliances with utter disregard for the toll on my body. And when I ruptured my Achilles that’s when I’d known that this course could not last long. Finding that I could do anything, on crutches I still drove trucks and moved about as a determined man. The quicksand of poverty lurked around every corner, but there was Chicago’s Chicken and Waffles and the people willing to talk with you on the street and Greenline Coffee and Sunshine that fired me. Yet so much existed in the shadow of the University of Chicago. A legendary institution of the elite with its back turned to the spectacle of human beauty and suffering.
During a stint driving Uber I marveled at my ability to tell where in the city I was going based on the name of the passenger. This is the nature of a segregated city. Since people on the Northside spent a lot on Ubers I hovered there a lot and began to fall in love with a different part of this expansive metropolis. Upon moving there I was met with a wall of aggression and racism that effectively crowded to the east side of the Chicago river. Great friendships forged in this fight for justice and even attended my first protest there. Access to diverse thoughts and books began to shape me from Bam back into Nathan. Met many tender hearts and found encouragement of my “ministry” as I had not before and felt the courage to launch off with the family and explore. Our family had found our groove with friends and activities to participate in. All was exposed as a little too comfortable. Then it became time to say goodbye.
We exited the city unceremoniously on a Friday with a adieu from close friends and watching the skyline recede behind us in the distance. All of the triumphs and tragedy came rushing in on me at that moment. The food and friends that cannot be matched in any other place but also inspired us to grow out into a new freedom that could never be replaced. Check my blood stream and of the “stinky onion” one will always find a trace.