It was 20 years ago this summer – 20 years ago this month, I think – when I first moved to Chicago.
I’d only seen a bit of Chicago when I’d visited as a teenager, during a trip with a DeMolay youth group. But as a bored suburban kid, I loved the vibe of the cities, the late night energy.
I was still, to some degree, under Jay’s spell. He’d moved to Chicago a few months earlier with a mutual friend. She moved out to deal with an intense personal issue (giving up a child for adoption) and Jay needed a roommate. And so off I went.
Unfortunately, June of 1995 was NOT the ideal time to land in Chicago. That summer eventually had one of the harshest heat waves in history, killing over 700 people in the city alone.
Jay and I shared a one-bedroom apartment in Ravenswood, a north side neighborhood near the Brown Line. At that time, Ravenswood was middle-class and middle of the road, not particularly ritzy or blighted.
I loved riding the CTA, loved all the little markets and stores, loved the mixture of faces and cultures I was seeing every day.
I worked during that first Chicago stint for a big chain bookstore, one of those big superstores. I’d started to work for them a year earlier, back in Pittsburgh.
After years of working at every fast food restaurant with a name tag and a uniform, smelling of grease and sweat at the end of a long day, I was lucky to land the book selling gig.
I had a love/hate relationship with that job. I loved being around books, but I felt like a bull in a china shop. My sweaty, big head and fat neck never felt at home in the dress shirt and tie we had to wear.
I regularly developed crushes on my male co-workers, especially my managers. Well-dressed, competent, and smart, and in a snazzy shirt and tie, too? Yes, please.
In Pittsburgh, the manager was tall, fiercely intelligent and handsome, with a laugh that made you want to pop up in the midst of wherever he was holding court. (And great penmanship, too!)
In Chicago, our manager was an almost comically relaxed, confident man with a flattop, big bushy facial hair and a body that looked great in form-fitting clothing. His assistant manager was Hollywood handsome, and looked like Central Casting had sent him to be in the cast of an NBC sitcom.
And then there was me, looking like an unmade bed, wrinkled and sweaty even in the middle of December. And now, it was July, and the temperatures were over 100 degrees.
The Wikipedia article (linked above) indicates that July 12 to 16 were the worst days, but I can remember the heat being oppressively bad even earlier than that. Just a few days after the Fourth of July, we had brownouts in our place, and I would take a cold shower every few hours just to keep from getting dehydrated and going completely batshit crazy in the heat.
It was hot inside, hot outside, hot in public places and hot on the buses and trains. CTA cars were a possible source of relief, but more often than not, the strain on the system would blow out a train’s AC.
Our store closed on a few of the hottest days, but aside from the fact that I got to see Jay walk around in nothing but briefs for a few days, there was no silver lining.
My free time that summer was limited, and so were my activities; Chicago was more expensive than I’d expected. I usually hung out at home and listened to my Discman.
It was that first stint in Chicago when a co-worker introduced me to Liz Phair. Her album Whip-Smart had just been released a few months earlier.
Then I heard Exile in Guyville, and I fell down a rabbit hole where I listened to that album on a loop. I’m still listening, twenty years later.
People argue about Liz Phair. They often love her or hate her. Even her fans often hold up Exile as her only work of value. It is a masterpiece, though there’s plenty to love about her other work, too.
It was hard then to separate the music from the constant press debate about Women In Music, and how they were being rude and angry and positively…manly. Attempts to package a few similar artists as a trend or some kind of sociological statement were made, and Liz was usually in the middle of any printed discussion of that firestorm.
I can’t speak to any of that. I just connected with her work, especially Exile, Whip-smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg, because of its authenticity. It felt like Liz was telling you, personally, her story.
There was an element of humor, but also a thread of darkness and loss, and I connected to that in her songs.
Chicago and me, we were like a bad habit. The city of broad shoulders was a boyfriend I couldn’t quite shake. I left a few months after my first arrival, but came back in 1997 to take a job working for the phone company and, for the final time, to live again with Jay.
In that 1997 move, I was here for a few months and then – bam – was laid off from that call center job. And there I was again, at that big behemoth bookseller.
History repeats itself in unusual ways. In 2008 I moved here again, and have lived here since. I accepted a fabulous job, worked there for less than a year and then, as if to make the cruelest joke possible, was laid off. Again. After a move. Again, just a few weeks before Christmas.
The gift this time – the gift that kept me here – is that I met and fell in love with the man who became
my partner. (Updated 5/2017: now husband!)
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the neighborhoods have changed. Ravenswood is now filled with condominiums, and neighboring Andersonville has become one of the most sought-after addresses in the city. For most of this stint in Chicago, I’ve lived much closer to the Loop than I ever had before.
I loved this city, but I have to be honest, it’s starting to break my heart. My career has taken a merciless beating here. I took time off to earn a college degree, but in the seven years I’ve lived here, finding a job – and fighting for the job once I land it – has been really hard. I may have great experience and a willingness to learn and work, but I look too old and too expensive on paper.
The city vibe and the noise and energy I loved 20 years ago drive me crazy now. So my partner and I will move on, at some point soon, and try to land somewhere with less noise, and a little patch of green to call our own.
I still have Liz’s work on pretty heavy rotation. It’s the same music, of course, but it elicits a slightly different reaction in me now. It’s comforting and it resonates with me.
Recently, I attended the memorial service of a friend, a man who died entirely too soon. I was anxious and nervous, but he, too, was a music fan, and I played a lot of his favorites, including a Liz track, on my way to the service.
I’ll see you around // Every hollow has its favorite sound
Every rock and tree and leaf abound with your face
The music centered me and calmed me.