Chicago stories

The streets are perfumed by linden trees. It’s sunny and warm, suddenly it is cool, and then tornadoes threaten. I choose to ignore the emergency message on my phone, because sometimes ignoring problems works. 

Sometimes it doesn’t.

The masks are off and it is business as usual. I wouldn’t have guessed there had been a pandemic if it weren’t for the slowness, the lack of hustle. A lone couple is cook, barman, barista, busboy and cashier, moving without rush. I am more surprised by the customers who remain patient with them in solidarity.

The front gardens of houses are so beautiful, but interspersed by flags and signs illustrating the need to say something about a nation divided. I find the banners and signs unaesthetic, but there’s no turning back now; maybe they have to be said. 

I still find some old doorways and those porches that remind me of the past, a time we think of as simpler, but it was nothing of the sort.

There are cars everywhere now and I can longer dash across the city quickly through the ‘bad’ areas, because now they are ‘good’, and they are dressed with flowers and even more cars. Although Millennium Park had not existed, Chicago is still the hometown I remember, which has changed in many ways, but not more than I have after 25 years: Despite having the right-of-way, I still can’t get myself to cross the street in front of moving traffic. Where are the people? I always ask on every visit. There’s never seems to be anyone in the streets, and then someone appears, walking a dog, but they don’t look at me. On the bus, everyone sees me, but no one looks at me.  

Returning to the city awakens the memories of how the summertime smells of cut grass and coming rain. Pizza. Those cement sidewalk stamps at the corners just before the curb. The beat of Chaka Khan. Old Style beer signs. The friendliness of wooden sports bars, despite the occasional oddity of chatty patrons.  The deafening roar of the ‘L’. The grandeur of South Michigan Ave. The rupture on the West Side in 1886 that has the world divided until today. How the streets disappear eastward into the blue. The street art of Pilsen.

I did my best, but could never quite capture Chicago as my friend Carrie Welsh, whose native eye and technique with a a camera is much more honed.

Unwinding at the Lakefront, I eavesdropped on the conversations of the family picnics. In Hindi. In Spanish. I heard Farsi. I should have guessed by the bikinis that a group was Brazilian. When I heard Portuguese, I bid them Bom Dia! A Dutch woman asked me for directions I couldn’t give. I tried to imagine what the Africans were talking about, but their music was more captivating than their parlor. The multiplicity of the city has always defined me, more than ever now that I am on the outside looking in, looking through the Chagall Windows.

Some customs I’ve forgotten, others are new and I’m unaware of them, and unfortunately there are those who are less patient with me than others.  I am often confounded because the US is so tailored for Americans that exceptions don’t fit.  My foreign info is not accepted in all the apps necessary to do everything.  Foreigners see me and come to help, but not like my little brothers who have become like older brothers, removing the obstacles in my path before I stumble. 

But now I can leap into Spanish most anywhere and at anytime when I want friendlier help. It used to be spoken in only in the kitchens and certain neighborhoods where the jasmine smell of linden trees gave way to that familiar smell of tomato when reaching the corner.

Now people are eating and eating from dishes the size of platters. Plates seem to have vanished. 

The sight of the young, White, urban professionals dressed in Cubs shirts, standing on the street corners smoking pot, was almost startling. Then I remember how I wish they would just legalize all drugs and stop this asinine war.

I have a couple of things I’d like to buy, but the packaging has so much information on it that I am no longer sure about what I want, and my sister is no longer here to sort me out on our three-hour hikes across the flowered city that is paradise in June. It is hard to believe the same streets will turn into a frozen hell in just five months. It is even harder to believe she will no longer walk at my side.

But some people are so a part of you that they are never really gone.

Where have all the birds gone? The insects? The summer used to be a song party in the park, where an old man played ‘Chega de Saudades’ on a saxophone. I couldn’t help it: I burst in with the lyrics. Everyone stared and I turned red and toned it down. A woman with a red sunhat encouraged me in her broken Portuguese, Please keep singing!  

It is always a reflective time to return home and see how some things change and some things never change:

West Side Story
Wildlife in the Loop
mosaic floor – Chicago Athletic Association
six corners – Wicker Park
Old Style.
Pilsen street art
art gallery – Haymarket Square

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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