The other night, around two in the morning at Sheridan and Bryn Mawr, right by that towering pink apartment building that looks like it belongs on a southern beach, my friend turned to me and said something interesting. That Chicago's air in the summer makes her feel nostalgic. It might sound strange, and sort of like a stretch, but I think that it's something you'd only really understand if you grew up here.
One of the most striking things you notice about a place when you first visit it is the air. I haven't yet been around the world as much as I'd like to, but I know that Ireland smells like grass, and cows, and rain, and that Iceland smells cold-blooded, dry, and heavy metal, and that Montreal smells like cigarettes and construction, and that Champaign Illinois smells like sticky floors and old buildings and the scents from the nights before that wander out of the bars when they're empty in the morning.
Chicago's got a lot of smells. The algae that sticks from the ledge of its beaches, the earthy smell of weed and flavored blunt wraps, that weird, indescribable mix of dirt and chocolate you get when you walk downtown, the hot plastic turf of my high school's football field where we left class to sit out by the Sear's tower and throw around footballs and watch the solar eclipse two August's ago. The emptiness and sculpture clay of the Art Institute, the musky, yellow pages from a book store, the Chai Tea Latte's across the street from my old school. Crushed snow that could never stop the Chicago Irish from the parade ("meet me at Buckingham fountain"), lacrosse sticks, yoga mats, a full cup of change, an empty bottle of Tito's.
There are some nights where Chicago just smells like magic and summertime, and you can't quite put your finger on it, but it makes you feel like you're 15 again, dodging calls from your parents, navigating Soundcloud rap and Lollapalooza for the very first time. You feel like you're digging your feet into the gravel of a Lincoln Park alley again, having your first kiss leaned up against a recycling bin, realizing that the scent of your first cigarette will stain your clothes, and your hair, and your teeth. Riding new lines of the CTA, watching the lights flicker on and off in the tunnel, like a gorgeous display, the blood rushing from your heart to your veins in that orderly way of the transportation system.
You visit Ohio, or California, or Delaware and the locals act like Chicago is a swear word, give you this sad look like they feel sorry for you. Sorry that though you were lucky and grew up in a neighborhood where you had a front porch with flowers and you could ride your bike to the park, that some of your best friends from high school grew up in places where shootings happened down the street, where they walked around caution tape after the blood was cleaned off the sidewalk the next morning. Sorry that you went to a lifeguard camp as a kid where you found condoms and broken glass and heroin needles in the sand before you could understand what they meant. Sorry that people are murdered and raped in parks that you love, that you get honked at and waved at and blown kisses to when you walk to Mariano's by yourself and that crime rates spike on holidays and weekends. Sorry that the schools and the day camps and the park districts in your city are underfunded and the systems created for your neighbors are unfair and broken. Sorry that you go off to college and meet kids from Peoria that are out of touch with the things happening 50 miles away from them until Chance the Rapper comes to town for a concert.
My city is f***ed-up and broken, but nevertheless, ever-changing, and hopeful, like you, and I, and its people with hearts that beat and blood that pumps like CTA trains. You walk down your favorite streets, see municipal signs caked in stickers and graffiti and art and you wonder where those people came from and where they plan to go.
I want to draw a map one day of the places that this city has shaped me. The record stores and book shops that have propelled my writing forth, the little front-yard library where I picked up my first book on Greek Philosophy. The baseball games my father took us to as kids, where we got peanut shells thrown at our heads by Cardinals fans. The Cultural Center where I wandered the dark hallways and the staircases and wondered who I was growing up to be. The hot classrooms of my high school, the Italian ice stand across the street for the last few days of the year. The lake I swam in on my nineteenth birthday, felt the sun burning my face but didn't mind, watched boats fly past me in the water.
My favorite view of this city is on this Amtrak train to Union Station from Champaign, Illinois. You can look right out of the window and see the cold, metal buildings. But you know the warmth hidden in office cubicles, in taxi cabs, you know the grit and the hard work and a few of the stories that live in them. You watch the 4:00 sun make magic, silver glitter, sit back in your seat, can't wait to get off the train and smell that special air.
So, Chicago, Illinois, I want to tell you something, and I hope it doesn't sound weird like in those reality television episodes where someone gets legally married to their car or dates a piece of furniture in their home. But, you're the love of my life, Chicago. You are blood-stained and broken and you smell really bad, but I will never give up on you. I don't think any of us will. Your language, your art, your D.I.Y, your Vienna beef hot dog stands, and your giant, beating heart will always be a part of me, whether I like it or not. Thank you for all your summers, I'll miss you this year.