Five days ago, I drove down the expressway into Chicago, with all my belongings loaded into a U-Haul, and saw Chicago for the first time as the place I would call home for the next few years. The skyscrapers started out hazy in the distance, but grew taller and taller, until the mass of the city was before me, and I started to question why I had uprooted myself from my comfortable life 500 miles away in Tennessee to get lost in the city, that city before me that was staring me down from its impossible height.
And I did get lost.
My first days as a new resident of Chicago consisted of getting lost inside buildings (Merchandise Mart is its own city, right?), getting lost on the train (trying to figure out if I’m going the right way or even on the right train, all the while trying not to fall over when the train stops and goes), getting blisters on my feet from not wearing the right shoes, walking like I knew where I was going (even though I was most assuredly walking in circles around the place I actually needed to be), walking up eight flights of stairs because elevators terrify me and realizing midway through that I may need to re-evaluate my elevator-faith, being utterly overwhelmed at the unimaginably height of the skyscrapers, going to a Cubs game and forgetting I had a camping knife in my purse (because I came from living in the woods to living in a big city) and almost getting in trouble with the law, and even getting lost in my own neighborhood, but then finding an awesome shaved ice cream place (Snow Dragon Shavery; it’s so good), and realizing that everything is going to be okay.
I take comfort in poetry, and oftentimes at the start of anything life-changing I take to reading poems. I started searching for poems that would help me relate to Chicago, understand Chicago from its people’s perspectives, and I discovered Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” I’ve read it everyday since moving to the city (granted I’ve only been living here for five days, but still), and even though it was written in 1914, it still resonates.
Sandburg speaks about the outsider’s perspective of Chicago, the negativity they only see, and, in the same breath, he accepts that there is violence, injustice, and brutality in his city: “And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill/ and go free to kill again.” He knows that a city consists of all of its history, good and bad. But he’s also defending his city: “And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give/ them back the sneer and say to them:/ Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse/ and strong and cunning.”
Which makes me think of my hometown, Memphis. People always have preconceived notions of a place without knowing its full story. According to everybody who knows of Memphis (but doesn’t really KNOW Memphis): “People get shot all the time, every day, everywhere;” “Memphis is nothing but Elvis/Beale Street/Graceland/Barbeque/The Southwest Corner of Tennessee.” Like Sandburg, I say, yes, Memphis is all of that, and it’s important to know, but Memphis is also so much more.
I’ve learned that Chicago is its neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own story. It’s a city of artists: playwrights, actors, writers, painters, dancers, and muralists who have the largest walls I’ve ever seen as their canvas. It’s a city of history: the architecture, the food, the sports, the crime, and the politics. Everything culminates to give voice to Chicago’s story.
I am glad that the first piece of Chicago art I connect to is Sandburg’s “Chicago,” because it tells a story of Chicago that doesn’t shy away from admitting the faults, but also shows the potential, and pride of the city. Sandburg ends the poem with a tangible laughter; a laughter that taunts, accepts, and bursts forth out of the hearts of the Chicago people.
And as I come to the end of my first week of living here, I feel that I’ve seen so much of Chicago, and nothing at all. I’m left with wanting to get lost in Chicago’s story and to find out what stories I need to know to understand this city, this city of the unimaginably tall buildings. (Jessica Love/ GTA)