We’re pleased to present an excerpt from the forthcoming anthology Rust Belt Chicago. Edited by Martha Bayne, the book features contributions from a host of writers, including Britt Julious, Aleksandar Hemon, Kari Lydersen, Kevin Coval, Zoe Zolbrod, and Kelly Hogan. It’ll be released on August 10. For now, here’s a new essay by Claire Tighe.
“Where 0 is State Street”
by Claire Tighe
The only way I can explain is by map.
I’ve been homesick lately. It comes out of nowhere, crashing over me like a wave against the lakefront breakwall. It threatens to topple me. To stop it I begin listing: places, names, addresses, lake. I’m making sure I remember home, its small elements, the streets and sites ingrained in me since day one, that grid navigation system that says 0 is State Street. Everything oriented around both number and name, eight blocks to a mile. Life squared by Harlem at 7200 West, Howard at 7600 North, down South by the hundreds, each street name assigned by the eponymous number. I recite names to numbers to make sure I still have it.
Everything oriented east, to the lake, the body so big it asks visitors to question if it really is onl a lake. Always to the east, contrasted by flat land to the west, the view of lights to the north, the way the water curves down in an arc to the south toward the border of Indiana. See, what happens when you orient to the water, baby, your whole world becomes dependent on direction. Lake is always the locus. Whenever I came up out of the ground, I find east first, where the buildings end and the water begins. When I come up, up, into the city from the south, seeing the skyline growing is like coming home and landing. The flatness is reassuring.
The homesickness hits me hardest on the subway, underground, especially when we’re stuck because this is no elevated train. There’s no sense to the numbers.
Born and grown in the city, Dad memorized the map, matching moment to address. He held the wonders of every city corner in his mind and would narrate them to me while driving me around in his car. Always driving. Memory layered on family layered on grid layered on land.
North side. The Brown Line train rustles the neighborhood leaves while gaining speed toward Damen. Every morning I’d wait facing east, looking over onto Ravenswood Avenue, the tops of the old industrial buildings peaking over the elevated tracks. The local favorite: the Degan Building’s green tower. And my favorite: 4433 North, the old electric factory built by the company that employed Dad’s dad for more than half of his lifetime. I knew it by the big square above the door where the company’s mosaic rested in its infancy. How fitting their building was demarcated by a big square, because that’s what they manufactured, big green boxes.
South side. Where Mom’s mom got teary eyed as her curtains dirtied from the city air. She pined for home, somewhere else. Grandpa was devising something big, something major, working at a lab that would have big consequences, for all of us, the big collective global we/us. While he was in the middle of it he didn’t say much. Now we live with his story but say little about the legacy of war within us, shaped right here at home, and the consequence of science and whatever else we inherited, too, even when government sent an apology for the effects his body endured in the years afterward.
West side. Supposedly, Mom sang to me, one dark night, when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary put a lantern in her shed and her cow kicked it over and blinked its eye and said it’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight. She bounced us on her knee, singing this song no one else ever knew when I asked, but she had a tune that must have come from somewhere. Also, Dad’s police beat, for those few short years he was in the force as a twenty-something. Memory made by block-by-block and street named remembered by number.
In high school, my teachers took us around the city, casting questions about the dynamic of changing neighborhoods as they gentrified. When I told Dad I was learning about gentrification he made a point to drive out of the way from where we were headed, political history lesson at the ready. He wanted Chicago to be my living laboratory. Together we walked down to one of the last remaining high rises of Cabrini-Green. I stood under its tall shadow, looking up, the Chicago sky so blue. I felt small, so small. A man sat across the street on the stoop of one of the low-rises, holding his t-shirt in his hands. He looked at me looking at the building. In just a few years the high-rises were gone. The city left a small grid of low-rises. In the mornings, I would take in the expanse of open land as I passed by on the Brown Line to work every day. I burned the space into memory, refusing to let history be erased by new condos and a big box store shopping center.
There are few other physical markers of the old regime. The Lathrop Homes are one, those brown buildings on Damen and Ashland, hidden behind the brick fence. There too live the city’s memories, behind the boarded-up windows of the half-empty neighborhood. But more important, folks still live inside the other half, holding space, holding our humanity, on the same plot city tied up in a conflict of rights and redevelopment.
I barely know what this city has seen.
On my bike I stained addresses into my memory too, where 0 begins at State Street. Dad always says to be careful, to watch out for doors, because drivers can’t see us bikers. And to beware using my phone on the train. I’m skeptical. Then I’m on the L and a man enters the car, intimidates us all to steal someone’s cellphone, and runs away, and I think maybe I should be more careful. I’m 25 and it’s the dead of winter and I love it hard but damn this city is violent. There’s the ugliness.
There are churches. One in particular. Me and Grandmother, at the gates of one in Rogers Park, arches of white stone casting shadows from above. She’s remembering. “When I was a little girl we used to play right here,” she says as she gazes into the half-light. I’m small enough to slip through the iron.
We’re down the street from where my dad grew up, in a yellow brick flat on Arthur Avenue, around the corner from the Loyola L. Every morning, from the window, they’d wave their grandpa, goodbye as he left for work and boarded the train. The back of the L was still an alleyway then.
We’re just down the block from my high school friend’s house and just a few more blocks from Albion beach, where we’d jump in the waves all summer long, catching a breath from the unforgiving heat, just a few blocks down from the campus were Dad went to school and would look out onto the lake, deep in thought, where the Madonna della Strada opens up onto the water. Churches are contemplation places.
I memorized bus numbers, too, categorized by their routes from east to west and south to north, through the Loop and back. Belmont, the 77. Chicago, the 66, or as we’d called it, the 666. Cross-town traffic always made it feel like a bus ride from hell. I loved riding the 9 because we get to cross the Ashland Bridge, my favorite view of downtown. I always strained my neck to get a glimpse. On cloudy days I imagined what the skyline looks like, through the red industrial arms of the bridge, over the spot where the Chicago River bubbles strangely, like a washing machine.
The river, curving through history, through architecture, past the very first settlement at the mouth of the water that runs backward. I walk over, drive over, bike over it daily. One of those days I jumped, startled, when I heard the mouth of the carp clashing down on the water, creeping up on their prey. A passerby said, “Nasty, ain’t they?” Because they were, their big eyes, seeing me see them. That river stunk so badly when it was hot. One night, when Dad was driving me home I complained about it. He looked over at me and said, “Oh, honey. Eventually, you’ll get used it. You’ll start to realize that’s just the smell of Chicago in summer.” Shikako, historians say the Miami and Illinois people called it. Striped skunk or wild leek. Chicagoua.
He held the mysteries of the city in his pocket. The old post office was one of them. As a kid, I’d sit in his car’s front seat and lay back to look at the Midwest sky as we drove through downtown. I was amazed when we’d drive under the old post office, speeding through the bottom of a building, lights blurring in my eyes as we passed. I pictured letters flying out of tubes above my head.
The river meets the Boulevard in the neighborhood where I lived for more than a year in a historic home with old doorknobs and ghosts. That year I become obsessed with the Boulevards. I spend Friday nights walking Logan to Kedzie to Palmer Square to Humboldt, thinking of old beer barons who wanted big homes and the wheelmen clubs who would race bicycles around the Palmer green. One night when I’m riding alone on the Boulevards and a car follows me too closely for too many blocks. There’s the darkness.
Chicago was his city and I was to love it, too. I felt it in the way he talked. He was passing it on to me. I could feel that he would miss me when I would go, because leaving Chicago was leaving three generations, leaving Dad.
Red line to Howard, 7600. The edge. Dad lived just past the cemetery on the border, on the water, where he could see the white caps of the waves from his window, beyond the trees, especially in winter.
I’m home for the holidays and I’ve only been gone three months. We’re driving home from a family gathering and get rerouted by midnight highway construction. We’re around the corner from my old apartment and I try to give us directions and instead I get us lost. It’s that restaurant sign on the corner that always throws me off. It looks the same from the east as it does from the south. From the front seat, Dad, looks over at me: “You’re turned around, honey.” My heart sinks. Only three months and it’s already lost? I’m ashamed at how quickly my memory faded.
In my new city I get an id card as proof of my new address. It’s been a few months since I’ve had a haircut and my hair is shorter in the front than the back. When I see the picture, I’m startled. I look like Dad.
Claire Tighe is a writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Ms. magazine, Bitch, Belt Magazine, and elsewhere.