Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chicago and/or Bust

Though I describe my childhood growing up in a small farming town in Indiana as idyllic, that perspective enjoys the distance of many years and many life experiences since. I was a shy, quite kid who always stuck pretty close to home, and as I entered high school that really didn't change much. I was biding my time, knowing the bright lights of a big city were in my future and that college loomed after high school graduation. A college town would certainly offer more to the closeted gay kid who dreamed of being a writer. Though I spent a lot of my time alone, I hate to use the word "lonely" because I never minded being alone and always managed to entertain myself--sometimes preferring it that way.

The college experience helped to bring me out of my shell, though begrudgingly. The college I attended was only 40 minutes from my parents’ house and the first semester of my freshman year I asked to be picked up so I could come home most every weekend. It wasn't that I missed my life there as much as I was comforted by the familiarity of my surroundings there. As first semester drew to a close I remember one weekend, my mom sat down with me and told me I needed to stop coming home so often. She wasn't being mean-spirited, wanting some "off" from the last of her three kids to leave the nest. She never had the chance to go to college and she thought I was missing out on the social aspect of what college had to offer. And she was right. I recently reminisced with her about that conversation. And though she didn't remember ever having said that to me, it's always stuck with me particularly when facing new social situations. I thanked for her for it because it made a big difference in giving me the nudge I needed to meet people and try new things. Never being one to have lots of friends, I managed to make a few close friends throughout my tenure there, some of whom I still keep in touch with today.

I floundered after college--career-wise. Though I had a degree in Communication, I didn't have the faintest idea what I wanted to do for a living. Of course I wanted to write, but not for a newspaper. The idea of all-nighters, chasing stories and meeting deadlines was enough to make me want to invent Xanax. I wanted to be a novelist. But there wasn't a major in neither “Novel Writing” nor a guaranteed paycheck with benefits. I was also struggling personally, having come out to myself my senior year and to the few friends I had. I wasn't sure how my folks or family would take it. I kept things very compartmentalized, a trait I still possess but only in a much broader sense. I had several jobs at the time, working full-time as a restaurant manager in a hotel and working at a national video chain part-time. I ended up quitting the restaurant because it was going belly up and they were being shady about my salary, and began working at the video store full-time. Though my relationship with my family was strained at the time mostly due to my lack of communication with them, my social life was a personal high! The college town I lived in had its very own bona fide gay bar. I hung out there with friends and just marveled at the fact that I wasn't the only gay person on the face of the planet. I danced a lot and goofed around and flirted occasionally. It was like running a marathon I'd trained my whole life for. It was fun and felt so natural.

But after a year or so it got old. Though the city in which I lived was large, it was by no means a metropolis and opportunities there were limited. I had some great friends who I would miss, but something bigger was calling to me: Chicago. It was the nearest big city and I grew watching all the major broadcast channels, detailing big city news. At times I considered our tiny burg a suburb. I needed to get there. I didn't have any money saved in order to quit my job and move there to figure out what the hell I wanted to do and how the hell I could make money doing it. I was friendly with the owner of the video store (a franchise of the chain) and asked if they had any contacts in Chicago to see if there might be a chance for a transfer of sorts. And they did. I interviewed at another franchise there and got a call a couple of days later offering me the job. I think the pay was $17k with a chance for bonuses. And I leapt at it.

I was the assistant manager at a store in Hoffman Estates which when I accepted the job seemed close enough to Chicago. It was a haul. I found an advertisement for a roommate in Gay Chicago Magazine and drove up to meet him. He called me a few days later to okay the deal, pending all the appropriate deposits. It was a beautiful apartment in the Ukrainian Village and he was though intellectual, a very nice guy. I moved into my room with just a scant wardrobe, a few milk crates and my diary. For the first month or so I didn't have a bed but rather slept on three pillows the old roommate had left that lined up in a skinny row that at the time fit my skinny body perfectly. A futon was something I'd need to save up for. Funny how twenty-something resilience and naiveté can propel you through circumstances that would seem unacceptable to anyone else. But I was spellbound by Chicago. Or at least by the idea of Chicago. Not to say I didn't feel the depression of my circumstances. Having the money to do little else but sit in my room, my journal from that first year has an entry from almost every day. Reading through the entries can be a little painful. It's clear by my tone and multiple uses of the world "fabulous" that I was fooling myself in a good old college try of "fake it 'til you make it." One of the conditions of my moving is was to have my own phone line (years before cell phones were affordable or really even known to most people other than Jonathan and Jennifer Hart or J.R. Ewing.) I was so busy talking on the phone at every opportunity, telling my old friends back home how happy I was it shouldn't have surprised me that my first (and last) phone bill was $800. Good bye, phone. Hello, isolation.

(My first apartment in the Ukrainian Village. The upper left apartment, obscured by the tree, is where I spent 90% of my free time obscured in my room.)

I stumbled through my first year in Chicago only by the stark fact I couldn't afford to leave. Nothing had turned out at all like I'd imagined or hoped for. When it came time to renew my lease my roommate sat me down much like my mother had in college and suggested I move someplace closer to Boystown (as I went out to the bars there when my work schedule and my wallet permitted) rather than renew and stay with him, he being older and somewhat more settled. I wasn't the ideal roommate in my early twenties, but I think he was honestly trying to do me a favor--and no doubt himself as well. I've seen him in the intervening years and we have laughed about that and all the other antics I pulled.

At least looking for an apartment this time was easier since I was more familiar with the city. I found another ad in Gay Chicago for an apartment in Boystown. Though the roommate didn't impress me nor did the Pepto-Bismo colored bedroom, I thought it would be a good base of operations for whatever was next for me. In spite of the bedroom color, it had a huge "L" shaped closet that must have been a hallway at some point in its history. Ironically, I remember spending a lot of time in there, nestled among my growing wardroom and my reactivated phone line. The roommate turned out to be somewhat of a freak, but it could have been worse. I'd gotten a new job that was closer than the first one and though it was another dead-end retail job I grew to hate, something unforgettable happened there. Something that changed my life. (But that's a whole 'nother blog.)

(My second apartment on Diversey. Funny, it seemed smaller when I lived there.)

Chicago was where I belonged and with one year under my belt, I was confident about that. There was nowhere else I wanted to be. I remember going back to my college town for a weekend visit and ran into a friend of mine who asked me how I liked living in Chicago. I told him I loved it (and by that time I'd meant it.) He smiled, surprised, and said, "I really thought the big city would chew you up and spit you out."

Well it didn't, dick.

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