It's hard to remember a time I didn't live in Chicago. The city feels as much like a treasured friend as the corporeal ones I've made since moving here twenty years ago. It offers a comfort and a feeling of "home" like no other place I've lived. I consider it a city that hasn't gotten so big for its britches. It's colorful, accessible and livable.
When I was growing up in rural Indiana I always anticipated living in Chicago. And though I made one or two trips here up through high school, my first introduction to "a big city" was a pre-college trip my dad took on the weekend before I started at Purdue University. Somewhat of a reward and a definite adventure for us to experience together.
I was doing some spring cleaning/purging recently and I found myself--of all things--staring at a stack of bath towels. I needed to go through them and get rid of the older ones. It was while going through the stack of older towels I ran across a couple of striped ones that weren't as threadbare as I would have expected for their age.
The day before I was to leave on my weekend adventure with Dad, my sister presented the eight towel set to me along with a long-gone brown plastic laundry basket. I don't know why the memory is so vivid for me. Maybe because I thought by having my own set of towels I was really an adult. I was going away to college on my own where I'd be responsible for laundry, grocery shopping, cooking and all the other mundane aspects of adulthood. I looked at the towels, trying to fathom how they stuck with me--or rather I stuck with them--over countless apartment moves, including two cross-country ones. These towels were twenty-five years old and as not much of a pack rat I hadn't been able to part with them. But in thinking about the memories surrounding them my mind was flooded with images of pre-Chicago and pre-who-I-have-become me; before I'd met most (though not all) of the amazing friends I have or the experiences I've had since then; before I'd met Ken and realized a life and a love that most people only dream of. A very different me in most respects.
Going to DC was not only a thrill in itself, but it was the very first time I'd ever flown. I remember my dad not being so thrilled with the concept though he'd flown many times before, but when the engines revved and we were all pressed back into our seats during acceleration I felt a rush of excitement--like this feeling was what my life had in store. It was a rush I've never forgotten and can still give me goosebumps upon reflection.
While in the nation's capital we spent an entire feet-aching day exploring the Smithsonian. My brand new zero-support brown leather deck shoes did me no favors that day. But my dad was adamant that we see every single thing we could while we were there. Imagine my "delight" when I realized the famous national museum wasn't just one large building, but a freaking campus of many! But they were indeed chock full of important things--like Archie Bunker's chair from "All in the Family". The biggest treasure (literally) I laid my eyes on was the Hope Diamond. I had been mesmerized by a TV movie a few years earlier detailing (and perhaps dramatizing) the history if its owners and the fates that befell each and every one of them. For months after seeing it I had fleeting thoughts that its curse may have rubbed off on me. "What if…" has been with me for a very, very long time.
One day we walked around the capital and White House and monuments. I saw a man lying on the sidewalk and looked over at my dad who didn't break his gate--like it wasn't unusual. We got closer and closer until I eventually had to step over the man. I said, "Did he have a heart attack or something? Should we help him?" I turned my head back to look at him as my dad answered. "No. He's homeless. Keep walking. We're almost there." I'd never remembered hearing the word "homeless" before. Everyone in my little home town had a home to go. I'd seen "Stone Pillow" but I didn't actually think it was "real". Plus, it starred Lucille Ball, so I figured it was just some kind of comedy I didn't understand. Seeing that man lying on the grating was so profoundly sad and so indelibly etched in my memory. It was a loss of innocence I couldn't possibly understand at the time. It was an introduction to the big city and a glimmer the world that was yet to come.
At the hotel my dad had befriended a man and his wife who were visiting from Verona, Italy. (Where Romeo and Juliet lived!) The husband didn't speak a word of English. Neither did his wife, but she did speak Spanish as well. I'd had four years of high school Spanish and our conversations were painful and filled with lots of nervous, time-filling laughter. But it did offer its moments brilliance when I realized I had gotten my point across to them. Over the course of the weekend my points became shorter and shorter. "How are you to day?" to "Good morning" to "Hi. We good. Bye." They were of course more patient and sublime than I would imagine an American being in their position. "Do you speak English? Does ANYONE HERE speak English?! UGH!"
Anyway, long story short…I kept the towels.