Chicago, Friday Night Trouble Bound

Neither of us had been to this bar in years, but as soon as we walk through the front door, hazy memories rush back like the swill at the bottom of a pint glass.  I sidle up to the cash-only bar and order two beers; the bartender hands me back my change,  a fistful of soggy singles that I shove into my wallet.

It takes two hours for the headlining band to take the stage. Before then, we stake out a spot in the crowd, bathing in neon light and the aural accompaniment of drunken banter. We’ve seen this band at least a dozen times before, but their shows make me feel like I never slowed down on all those killer parties. These kinds of nights feel like pure Chicago to me. How many times since I first turned 21 have I danced on this sticky floor, how many cheap PBRs have I crushed, how many times have I used the women’s bathroom where there’s never a functioning lock and I have to hook my foot around the bottom of the stall door so no one walks in on me. How many bands have I seen, and how many of them skyrocketed to fame or disappeared into oblivion.

The opening act is the frontman of another well-known band in town for the weekend, appearing solo, singing covers of 60’s and 70’s AM Gold radio hits. Catering to the local crowd, he launches into the rolling opening chords of “Lakeshore Drive.” I sing along, Friday night trouble bound.

When the headlining band takes the stage, the air is electric in that way that only happens when everyone there is a diehard fan who knows every lyric by heart. We scream in unison, hands punching the air like Mario raining coins from the sky. I can use this reference because everyone in this dive bar is my age. The room vibrates with body heat and joy. I feel the bass reverberate up through the soles of my feet and I wonder if my pulse matches the beat of the drums .

We pour out of the bar at 1 a.m., exhausted and exhilarated. As we walk down Western Ave, I feel the concrete sidewalk beneath my Chucks, rooting me to this city. Driving up Milwaukee Ave, we pass through my old neighborhood and I’m struck again by how much has changed–old laundromats and empty storefronts replaced with hipster bars, yoga studios, and breweries. I’m glad some time capsules still remain.

 

City Kid with an Outdoor Heart

I constantly feel conflicted about living in a big city.  Throughout every downtown office cubicle job I’ve had, I would find moments to slip away and gaze out a window. I needed to see the outside for whatever brief little moments I could find. My husband and I have traveled to the Badlands, Black Hills, Yellowstone, and Glacier. We’ve kayaked and camped along the Wisconsin River nearly every summer we’ve been together. We used every last frequent flier mile we had to travel to Alaska, where we drove an RV around for 10 days of exploring . When I’m outdoors, it feels like my soul can finally breathe. I love it.

But I also love living in the city–the third largest U.S. city, to be precise (stand down, Houston). In Chicago, I have regular access to art, culture, and whatever kind of food I’m craving, be it Indian, Mexican, Ethiopian, Filipino, or Korean. In the city, I meet people from all walks of life, who grew up in other countries or have interesting backgrounds, who spent a year backpacking across Australia or studying the circus arts. On any given evening, I can go attend a live literary reading or open mic, see a band I’ve never heard of or one I grew up listening to, or go to a bar to cheer on one of our many local professional sports teams and high-five strangers.

In the outdoors, I’ve seen a mountain lion cross the road in front of us, its eyes fixed upon us, long tail slowly swishing, looking like something majestic and wild and otherworldly, before it leapt up the hillside in three fluid strides.

In the city, I’ve seen both obscure arthouse films and major movie premieres on the big screen with the director present for a live Q&A.

In the outdoors, I’ve had a bison huff angrily at the tent where my husband and I slept, threatening to charge us for being on his home turf.

In the city, I’ve participated in a flash mob during the halftime of a roller derby bout while dressed as a ninja.

In the outdoors, I’ve heard the howls of coyotes, the hoots of owls, and the soft patter of rain on the roof of my tent as I drifted to sleep.

In the city, I’ve seen priceless works of art at our local, internationally renowned museums.

In the outdoors, I’ve waited out a rainstorm with my husband in a 3-man tent on a narrow sandbar in the middle of a river, drinking boxed wine from our camping cups and reading the third Game of Thrones book by the light of my headlamp as rain pelted our fly and lightning crackled over our heads.

In the city, I’ve danced in the rain during a street festival with a beer in one hand and a taco in the other, surrounded by friends and live music.

I love my hometown while simultaneously feeling frustrated by it. I get disheartened by crime and the disrespect people can have for their surroundings, others’ property, and human life. This city will always inspire me, excite me, act as a muse, and break my heart over and over. And when things become to stressful, bleak, or maddening, the mountains start calling my name.

Maps

Every line in a map is a new possibility. I love tracing the routes with my eyes, imagining the experiences that each detour might bring. Unfolding a map is unfurling a new adventure; I want to spread them out on the hardwood floor, studying the topography, noting the landmarks, exploring the options.

Looking at a road map brings back a rush to my senses: the roar of a motorcycle engine cutting through the light spring breeze, the overpowering smell of sulfur while driving through Yellowstone National Park, the Trampled By Turtles album that filled the car as we drove through the Smoky Mountains in a light rainstorm, the unsettling beauty of the Pacific Ocean just beyond the steep drop-off of PCH. It reminds me of how much of the world lays out there that I have yet to see, beyond the 23 inches of my computer monitor.

A Chicago city map is a different kind of map to me: it is a map of memories. I don’t need to look at the street names; I know them by heart. The phrase “know by heart” is in itself very sentimental. My heart knows these places because I lived in them, and they are a part of me. When I drive down California Ave past my old apartment, I always crane my neck to see if I can spot someone beyond the fence in the front yard. We used to stay out there all night, the patchy grass littered with beer cans, sitting in camping chairs and talking and laughing until the sun started to rise and the smell of baking bread wafted over from the nearby panaderia. Dodging traffic in Ravenswood reminds me of the sprint from work to home to roller derby practice, a routine that dominated most of my evenings for a portion of my life. 17 years, 2 dorm rooms and 7 different apartments in 6 different Chicago neighborhoods–that’s a lot of push pins on my heart map. Now, I live in a house with my husband–our first real house. Our street is lined with old, towering trees that create a green leafy canopy in the summer over the quiet, one-way street. There’s a hot dog stand on the corner, which brings back a bear-hug-embrace of nostalgia for the street where my grandparents live, not very far from this house. As kids, my siblings and cousins and I were allowed to bike up and down their block, and when we were lucky, one of our parents would take us to the hot dog stand on the corner. Being in my our own first home, with our own hot dog stand, feels like I’ve come full circle. I may not be very far on the map from where I started, but I’ve visited many places along the way.

 

 

On Being an Outdoor Cat

I easily get claustrophobic, but it goes beyond crowded elevators or airplanes. I get claustrophobic in office cubicles or conference rooms with no windows. For most of my adult life I’ve held an office job, but I yearn to be outdoors more often. If my desk sits somewhere in a building where I can’t see outside, I get a little stir crazy. I would take breaks to go and linger by a window to get a glimpse of sky.

This sort of claustrophobia can get particularly bad in the last long, dreary stretch of winter, much like what we’re experiencing right now in Chicago. I currently work from home, and my desk faces two large sets of windows, which makes my inner “outdoor cat” happy. I can see the backyard while I work and watch the squirrels run along the top of the fence.

This winter, Seasonal Affective Disorder has been lurking nearby in the shadows, threatening to capture me. I wish I could fly somewhere sunny and beautiful, but I can’t right now. Instead, I try to find little ways to make myself happy. If it’s nice out (in my very Chicagoan definition, sunny and above 17 degrees), I take my dog out for a walk during my lunch break. We’ll stroll through our neighborhood and admire the beautiful old houses, then visit the local park. Just seeing trees and expanses of sky immediately lifts my spirits and reinvigorates me for an afternoon of work.

When it’s too cold, icy, or rainy, I’ll spend lunch reading hiking blogs or checking out the Instagram accounts of national parks. I let myself daydream about visiting those places someday, or even dare to think about tackling the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, or Appalachian Trail myself. Granted, this would require saving up thousands of dollars and taking about 6 months off of work, so it’s more of a very, very longtime goal far off in my future.

I’m hoping for an early spring and that the worst of the cold and gray is behind us. Until then, like any other outdoor cat, I’ll curl up near a window in a nice warm sunbeam and daydream about leaving the house again soon.