The Last City I Loved: Chicago


It depends on the definition of love, of course. You can spend a week in a city and ache at the sight of its balconies, be imprinted forever with the particular stench of jasmine and diesel. But if the intimacy doesn’t last at least as long as a year, was it really love? I’ve always thought not. And by that definition, there’s only been one for me. The last is the first: Chicago.

I grew up on a rural route outside a small town and went to college in a smaller town yet, and I pined all my young life for a big city. But it did not happen at a glance with Chicago. The buildings and streets were wider and more windswept than those of the East Coast cities with which I was familiar, the distance between the few significant points I could identify vast, and the city remained unknowable to me–still unknown despite repeated trips when I came for my last time as a visitor in 1989.

In my senior year of college and on winter break, I was staying with my friend in her out-of-town parents’ house in Hyde Park. Although affection lingered, our active friendship was on the wane, and the real reason I was there was that my new boyfriend was coming in to play with his band at a club called Exit on New Year’s Eve. They were opening for Naked Raygun. Then they were heading out on tour. We’d been apart for a couple weeks already and were at a stage in the relationship where the thought of going a few weeks more without an alleviating consummation caused a physical pain. I would have been excited to meet him in a truck stop parking lot, let alone in punk rock majesty, and I counted the hours while whiling time with my low-key friend, an introvert who’d grown up in the city and didn’t have the impulse I did to stalk the streets like an alley cat, sniffing at cans.

On the evening of the show, her brother was supposed to drive us up north, but he was late, then later, and then we called a cab, and another one and another one until we finally got through somewhere. But the cab never came, and neither did her brother, and I was assured a dozen times that public transportation from where we were on the south side to the north side was impossible at that time of night.

I had hitchhiked and Greyhounded and hightailed it all over the country and Europe during the previous few years, but there I was that New Year’s Eve, trapped in a turreted home, imprisoned, infantilized, while the world raved on without me. I’d come to Chicago with open arms, but the Midwestern behemoth had shrugged and turned its back. I felt I would be kept outside the urban gates forever. I believed I had failed some test set by a cruel king and would never see my new boyfriend again.

Luckily he didn’t get that memo, and he showed up at my friend’s house the next evening. She had been so quietly kind the previous day, in the face of my misery, and she was tactful and kind again, allowing him and me to disappear into my little guest room in the attic. We didn’t come out for the next sixteen hours or so, except once in the middle of the night when hunger drove us down the three flights of stairs and into the kitchen. The next afternoon, my face sore from kissing and grinning, we set out together to make our way in the metropolis.

We took a train into the Loop and stepped off it into lit, slushy dark. I had no idea where we were, other than The City, deep in a thrilling canyon of skyscrapers, and I still don’t know. But he had a vague sense. Ukrainian Village. Wicker Park. I heard those words for the first time from him. We were going to the house where he was crashing with his band mates. West, he thought it was. Barring the site of an actual sunset, I couldn’t have pointed in a cardinal direction to save my life. “West,” I parroted. “Sure!”

It was warm for a winter night, the sidewalks wet, perfect walking weather—or maybe the balminess was all in my mind. I felt half afloat. We walked out of the Loop and into an industrial district, foreboding and dark but aesthetically compatible with the Einsturzende Neubauten and Psychic TV that spun on our turntables. We saw no one. Nothing was open or looked like it ever had been. The blocks were long.

“I think this is the right way,” he said. There was the frisson of unease, the tingle of walking into it, the sense of being the only two people alive in the world. We passed a warehouse that had a gray metal door flanked by three mailboxes, each bearing a label with one or more names. The label on the top box was made from red plastic tape with letters pressed into it and accompanied by signifying stickers, artfully placed, and a twist of silk flowers. We looked at each other. Smiled. We were the only people on Earth projected into the future, looking at the threshold to our someday home.

Milwaukee Avenue. He thought he recognized the name. Chicago Avenue. Now he was sure we were on the right path. A few blocks more and there was the pulse of life again. People. Shops. Signage in Spanish. A horse outside a Western-wear store. There was no visible Mexican population in East Coast cities at that time, and I had spent some summers in New Mexico. I liked the combination of desert culture and urban ‘hood. We stopped for a bean burrito at a storefront restaurant, a place blasting mariachi music and bathed in bright light. We were the only young white Americans in a country not our own. Then he called on a pay phone to get exact directions to the house, and as soon as we arrived at the neat bungalow—just steps from the Hispanic commerce but part of a row manifesting Ukrainian tidiness with clipped hedges and edged walks —we were taken back out again under the wing of a pack.

We went in and out of one bar and down another dark street. Then we were upon a one-story brick structure with painted-over windows, a hash of metal grate over one of the entryways and the other hardly more inviting, a burgundy door set back in a little alcove. Above it was a neon sign, mostly in pink: a vertical R-a-i-n-b-o and then the script Club. Its seedy glow made the sidewalk brighter than the interior, where a doorman sat looking serious.

My heart started to bump. It wasn’t clear to me what kind of culture we were walking into, and my boyfriend was not yet 21. But we slipped by—how did we do that? They were so strict; it still seems a miracle—and slid into a circular booth. Red vinyl. Round red table. A big horseshoe bar arching around an almost rococo stage. Art hung above the dark paneling on the walls, expressively lit with inadequate spots. It was my perfect dream pairing of bohemian boudoir and wild-west saloon. James Brown blared, sounding as new and old and fantastic as anything I’d ever heard.

The bar filled up. T-shirts and leather and boots and hair. We didn’t move from our booth, knowing no one and afraid of being caught as underage or just agog. But one of the women in the group kept depositing flared glasses of beer at our table. “How much?” I asked after the second or third one. I counted my few dollars carefully, was aware when someone spent any on me.

“Free when you’re visiting Chicago,” she smiled. And I had to accept. Chicago. Yes. It had taken me awhile, but now I was here, retrieved from banishment and inexorably bound to my boyfriend. We were in the middle of everything, right in the center of a secret world. I don’t know how this fits into my theory of at least a year, but there’s often an immediate clarity: You need only an evening to recognize that there will be love. At least in retrospect.

Six months later, a new graduate, I took a room in an apartment three blocks from the Raindo Club. I would spend countless hours in a Rainbo booth over the next eight years. I would traipse up and down Chicago Avenue countless times. I would bike and walk and bus Milwaukee Avenue from the Bloomer chocolate factory to the Village Thrift until I knew every E-Z terms furniture store and half-caved-in, boarded-up architectural gem. These were the parameters of my world, and it gave me joy to lay claim to them.

I admit that in the couple weeks between graduating and moving to Chicago I sat on the living room floor of my soon-to-be-sold childhood home and poured over a street map, my heart falling as I counted out the blocks between where I’d be living and the closest patch of green. The triangle called Wicker Park looked about the size of a single backyard where I grew up, unfenced glades that sloped down to a creek. Yes, I had always pined for the city, but I hadn’t exactly thought through how it’d feel to live on a permanent diet of all cement, no woods. It didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought, though. I found other things to connect me to home.

Wicker Park in 1990 was in the earliest stages of gentrification, and it had features familiar to anyone who’d grown up in a crumbling Rust Belt town: Decay, limitation, the creativity demanded by making do.

There were, for example, no ATMs. To get cash, you needed a check-cashing card from the Jewel. Bedrooms might have only half of one working outlet. A single space heater often did the work of warming four or five rooms. My favorite music venue, Czar Bar, looked very much like the Volunteer Fireman’s hall back on Cussewago Road: The same stackable vinyl-baked chairs, tin ashtrays, starkly utilitarian lighting, and cigar smell. But this version had the addition of fantabulous scenesters collecting to see Beat Happening play a seven-dollar show. It wasn’t long before I would recognize by sight most of the people in the room.

Soon enough, Earwax would move in, and a little later, Quimbys, on Damen and Evergreen before moving to North. But in 1990 you still had to make forays out of the neighborhood to buy books and records and trendy thick-soled shoes. Forays out to eat food that was not Mexican or Ukrainian or Polish. There was Leo’s Lunchroom and Urbis Orbis catering to the brunch and coffee needs of arty types, but no Thai. No Indian. No Ethiopian. No bagels. Certainly no sushi. There was a feeling of expedition to get any of those things. From the base camp in Wicker Park out into the great bounty of Chicago, any adventure was possible. It was the combination of village and city made for someone like me.

That first summer I had no job yet, which meant I had no money, either, to speak of, but time to explore. When my boyfriend returned from a European tour to stay with me in my 8 x 10 room, we took train rides and walks that felt like extensions of the first one. The temperature was 60 degrees warmer, heat and stink rising from the sidewalks in waves, but there was a similar wonder and dreamlike accord. The Picasso sculpture at night. Humboldt Park on Puerto Rican Independence Day. Reckless Records on Broadway. Powell’s Books near Printer’s Row.

Then he went back to school and I took a job in River North and beat a path in that direction. I walked north over the Chicago River on every bridge from the Loop and decided LaSalle had the most spectacular view, the best proportion of buildings to water to lights. That first year as an office drone often left me shaky and lonely—This is what it feels like to work for a living? What happens next?—but I’d stop and look out from that red steel bridge in the winter, and the city kept me in its thrall.

My boyfriend and I eventually moved into a loft that resembled the one we’d noticed in 1990, but the relationship faltered. My job went to seed. I met a new friend who riveted me, took to running around the neighborhood at all hours with her. We’d both ride on my bike, inebriated, helmetless, in elaborate outfits we’d scored at the thrift store the day before, the wind warm on our faces as I pedaled us from show to party to bar. Most nights we’d pass through the Rainbo, and she’d make it her project to collect quarters for the photo booth and herd us there. We’d mash on each other once the curtain was drawn, strip down or ham it up, kiss. This display for posterity felt uncontainable. We were conscious of our luck and happiness.

Then for a year I traveled, touching down once in the neighborhood for a stint to couch surf and pick up waitressing shifts and a boy while I arranged visas and vaccinations. It’d have been easy to settle somewhere else after my trip, to take up in Seattle or abroad somewhere warm—I owned virtually nothing, and I fancied myself an adventurer. But at heart what I wanted was Chicago. I returned and moved in with my friend, picked up where I’d left off with the boy.

Over the years, between moving and crashing and boyfriends here and there, I laid my head in a lot of corners of the larger neighborhood, the area between Noble and California and Hubbard and Armitage that was maybe two miles square. You could have plopped me down anywhere, drunk, at three in the morning, and I could have pointed correctly in each cardinal direction, told you what each quadrant’s best bars and corner markets were. At my final apartment in Wicker Park, on Augusta and Western, a single sapling was the only tree I could see when I stood on my fire escape. By this point, when I left the city, the itch of the foliage and the scream of bugs and the depth of the dark were something that I had to get used to.

The Rainbo Club played its part in taking me out of the neighborhood. My friend went one night without me, met a man who lived up north, at Irving and Clark. He’d come in for an art opening. Once they fell in love, I was set up with his best friend, and it worked. We four participated in a red-light green-light swap of primary affection. “Where’d you find him?” a couple friends asked me, maybe wistfully.  There were many more hip people and places to go in Wicker Park by this time, but in some ways it felt smaller, too, to those of us who’d been fishing there for years.

When Mark and I decided to move in together, we said we’d look both in his neighborhood and mine, and we’d move wherever we found the best place. I tried really hard. But Wicker Park was on fire. We’d show up to a viewing and there’d be a dozen other people there, pushing past each other to look at the closets in bedrooms the size of them, waving checks in the air.

So we moved to Uptown, in between New Chinatown and Andersonville, and I found other things about Chicago to love. I had Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, and Thai markets to explore. There were fewer bars I liked and fewer friends within walking distance, but that was made up for by lakefront. And oh, the lake, the lake, the lake. Crashing and green. Frozen and regal. Mirror-like. Caribbean blue. I rode my bike along it to my job in the Loop. I walked and ran along it and thought my thoughts. I wrote a novel. I settled into interior life, and domestic life, and really became part of a pair.

Eventually we had saved enough to buy a place, but now the crowds were descending on Edgewater and Uptown, bidding over the asking price of anything we could afford, and so we migrated further north into Rogers Park. I was pregnant by the time we moved in. My son was born in the spring, and he and I explored the lay of the land together as I fell in mother love. Everything looked different to me with him strapped to my chest, dewy and outsized and new. Instead of bars, my mental map was marked off by playlots. Andmore than ever, it was defined by the lake.

In Rogers Park, the beach is not cut off from the mainland by Lake Shore Drive. The sidewalk just deposits you into it. We were there in all seasons, scooching on the sculpture at Pratt Beach, finding the most interesting panels on the winding mural wall, climbing between the hills of sand banked up each fall.

Our favorite spot was what we called the “playground by the lake,” a one-block park and beach at Albion, separated from the continuous stretch of the Rogers Park beaches by buildings and rocks. Albion ends in a cul de sac, and while we lived nearby the city installed a few black benches just off the curb, facing the sand and water. Sitting there, I get the feeling I’m in Brighton Beach, or in Russia – two places that I’ve never been. One day someone staked Tibetan prayer flags into the sand, and their flutter reminds me of the Himalayas, the fartherest-away place I’ve ever reached and a symbol of what I’ve resisted in order to take root. Looking south, I see the outline of Chicago’s shore, the skyline of the city. The view instills me with the sense of fullness and possibility just barely tipped with melancholy. Time is passing. Time has passed. Choices have been made.

I never returned to my hometown for more than a couple of weeks once I left at 18, and my parents split up and moved out of state soon thereafter. Chicago is my home. I don’t even fantasize anymore about leaving it for somewhere sunnier or more spectacular. A sojourn, a sabbatical, sure. That’d be great. That’d be fun. An affair. But Chicago is my home. There’s so much here. The Russian shore, the Caribbean coast, that place at Devon and Maplewood where the traffic chokes and the sari shops beckon. The smell of burnt duck on Argyle. The way the bike path widens when you come up on the volleyball players around Fullerton Beach. The way Michigan Avenue slices a straight, clean edge of skyscrapers apart from the infinite lake. And the cacophony of Wicker Park.

I go to visit. Sometimes I take the Metra and get off at the Clybourn stop, where – when I lived near Wabansia – I used to get on. I walk past the site of the old Artful Dodger, where my friend and I used to go for a nightcap in our pajamas and sometimes end up dancing, past the house where we lived so happily until it caught fire, past stoops and sidewalks where I’d kissed and caroused, the sign post where my bike was locked when someone ripped off its tires. Beneath windows of rooms where I had sex and cried and read and danced and talked all night. And there’s another one. Another one there. Up Milwaukee Avenue to Damen. From Damen to Division, and the glowing Rainbo sign. There are more restaurants on one block than there were in the whole neighborhood when I moved here. Dinner for two at many of them costs as much as a month of my former rent. It’s been like this for years, and I come around plenty. But there’s a moment where I stand like a rube every time.

There were no ATMs! I say sometimes out loud. There were no ATMs!

I’m at the age and in a situation where it seems possible that I won’t fall in love again, not in that way. Except to the extent that I do whenever I walk down Milwaukee Avenue, a greenhorn once more, amazed, exhilarated, and an out-dated old-timer, too, in a trance of nostalgia. Everything’s existing all at once for me. The scope of a big city. The small village made good. And I love it.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the award-winning memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. More from this author →