The Long Way Home

I grew up in the suburbs North of Chicago. That means that despite my close proximity to the city, I usually only went there for field trips and sporting events. Growing up, Chicago was a big and scary place where people walked on top of people for lack of elbow room, every neighborhood I went to was certainly a gangland shooting gallery, and the city was unequivocally made up of only the tall steel and glass titans that you saw in pictures of the skyline. When I learned to drive, I was afraid of taking my car into the city. I’d ask a friend to drive instead or I just wouldn’t go. What was I going to do-take the train in?

Then I moved away for eight years living in both Tucson and then Los Angeles. I wanted to get the hell away from the cold. I wanted to know what it was like to live elsewhere in the country. I learned these cities like my own reflection. Every corner, every restaurant or bar, I could look at and think of something that happened to me there. And all the while, I couldn’t help be feel a longing for home. Not the home that I grew up in, with strip malls and chain restaurants. I longed for Chicago. Or more accurately, I longed for an idealized version of Chicago. I mean, what the hell was so hard for T-town and LA to figure out about hot dogs and deep dish pizza? But as much as I reminisced about what I thought Chicago was, I had no intention of ever moving back. I was going to be a screenwriter if it killed me. And then the writer’s strike happened…

Long story short, I moved back home with my tail between my legs, only to end up back in the suburbs living with my grandparents. And that’s when my Chicago story (my true story) began. My best friend from high school was living in the city at the time and I would go down to visit him as often as I could. In one month my car was broken into twice. My iPod was stolen both times. Needless to say, my first impressions of the real city were on par with those of my childhood. But I knew living in your grandparent’s house was no place for a 20-something and made the move to Humboldt Park. Mind you, this was Humboldt before the hipsters ventured west. I heard gun shots on a daily basis, my roommate skipped out on six months of rent, and I couldn’t find a decent job to save my life. I was poor, directionless and ashamed of coming home. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was ugliness and a world I did not understand. I knew how to get around all of Los Angeles, but I had no idea where I was at any given moment in Chicago.

Then, gradually, it started to make sense. I mastered the L. I rode a bus for the first time. Believe it or not, these were major strides for me. I began to make friends, I went out, tried different foods, even had myself a taste of Malort. My shame fell away. I came to understand that Los Angeles and Tucson were parts of my life that were over. Chicago was becoming my home.

Skip forward a couple of years, and I was working as a delivery driver for GrubHub. Suddenly I was spending 6-12 hours a day in my car, navigating the streets of Lake View, Wicker Park, Logan Square, and even the loop. I got more than my fair share of parking tickets ($450 in one month at one point), learned street names, and most importantly, found my place in the city. You want to know the city? Drive down Clark St. from Andersonville going South into the loop with your windows down. Breathe deep. Listen carefully, and gaze at the lights and buildings and people. There is an entire compendium of stories located on every block you pass. You just need to pay attention.

Nowadays I drive for Lyft. I meet every kind of person this city has to offer. Transplants, tourists, seasoned veterans, and everyone in between. I drive through the roughest neighborhoods on the South side like Engelwood and Auburn Gresham, to the West Loop with all of it’s high end eateries, to the urban suburbs (or Urburbs as I like to call them) of Lincoln Square and Andersonville. I’ve now lived here long enough to see entire neighborhoods change their identities. And maybe most importantly discovered that of any city I’ve ever been to (Los Angeles, Tucson, New York, Paris, London, Bangkok, Hong Kong) there is no road in the world like Lake Shore Drive. No matter which end you start from, the view is spectacular, making the city look like living breathing work of art. Like Camelot on the lake.

On the night I was married, my new wife and I left the reception in an old antique Rolls Royce. The driver took us down LSD to the Mag Mile, past Millennium and Grant Park, back to Lake Shore and down to the Museum of Science and Industry. As we drove past the enormous buildings and layered up people I’d come to understand and accept as my own, I had a thought: This is my city. I am a part of it, and it is a part of me.

It took me awhile to warm up to living in Chicago. And for all of it’s corruption and greed, construction, humidity, and polar vortexes, I’ve come to love this city. Sweet home Chicago. (J. Ryan Sommers/ GTA)

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