“Chicago’s a great place, but I ain’t going to say nothin about it, only jest this, that when you feel like tellin a feller to go to the devil — tell him to go to Chicago — it’ll anser every purpose, and is perhaps, a leetle more expensive.”
– Mark Twain
I woke up before the crack of dawn for the first time since my bookkeeping job in college, finished off the last of the food in my refrigerator, made a split second decision to save the dishes for later, and headed out the door. As I walked towards the bus stop with my bags, I imagined I was a nurse at one of the hospitals in Cleveland. Nurses and doctors are always carrying extra bags with their scrubs or street clothes inside. As I walked into Starbucks to buy a last-minute muffin, I hoped that’s what other people thought of me.
“Looks like nobody wants to go to work today,” the bus driver joked with me as stop after stop went by with no new passengers.
“Hump day, am I right?” I responded, happy for the camaraderie so early in the morning.
I collected my tickets at the Greyhound station and settled in for the long wait. My anxiety had made me unnecessarily airport-early. For two hours, I quietly observed the motley crew of people slowly milling about the terminal or contorting their bodies into odd shapes to conform to the rigid metal benches. To my left, an old black woman made silly faces at an Amish baby. Across the terminal, a south-Asian couple supported each other as they slept with a bright red blanket wrapped around their shoulders. I remember thinking, This is America, and I am me.
From behind me, I heard a man clear his throat. I turned and said good morning. He told me he was a veteran of the Gulf War and asked if I could please buy him some breakfast. I agreed because I had no reason not to. It was surprisingly expensive, and, despite knowing that the transaction would not compromise my financial stability, irritation flared on the peripheries of my consciousness. Why had he ordered so much? Why did I let him take advantage of me? As I handed him the small, paper bag, I took a breath and checked my anger at the door. I told him to enjoy his day, and I genuinely meant it.
The bus ride was uneventful. The sun came out, and orange and yellow trees passed by as we cruised along the freeway. My heart beat faster the closer we came to Indiana. I hadn’t really left Ohio for three years. What if there was a reason? What if I was cursed? I sent up a silent hope that nothing bad would happen to our bus and that we would arrive in Illinois safely. We passed the Welcome to Indiana sign and ten minutes later the air conditioning broke.
The sun was high in the sky and beating mercilessly down on us weary travelers. I knew it, I thought as sweat soaked into my layers of shirts. “We could wait for a new bus,” our driver suggested, “or we could keep driving. It’s up to you.” We kept going, and we made it to Chicago, our nostrils spared any greater discomfort by our collective deodorant usage.
Upon my arrival, a kind and helpful CTA employee assisted me in buying a Ventra card and finding the right train. I checked into my hostel and made plans to meet some dear friends for dinner. As I sat on the roof, looking east towards the city, I remember thinking, This is America, and I am me.
I woke up very early. Something I learned as I was texting my friends during the bus ride is that Chicago is a different time zone from Ohio. As soon as the clock on my phone switched from 3:30 to 2:30, after the initial gasp of surprise, I kicked myself for being so dumb. When I was a child, I used to tell people things like: “I love Nature. It’s on at 9/8 Central!” or “Figure skating at the Olympics begins at 8/7 Central!” That’s what that means, I remember thinking on the bus, despite having known what that meant for years now.
Lingering stories from Day 1 aside, I woke up very early because of the time difference. As I waited for my pancakes to cook, I scrolled and typed on my phone, manically trying to plan an amazing day for myself. One of my greatest anxieties traveling alone is that I won’t experience a city to its fullest. It’s all I can do to keep myself from drowning in the crushing inertia of that feeling. Steeling my mind, I committed myself to a destination. Knowing I would get free admission with my work I.D., I decided to go to the Field Museum when it opened at 9am so I could see everything before the afternoon rush. (Being a museum employee has its benefits–namely, knowing when other museums will be less crowded.)
The museum was amazing. I waited in no lines and was greeted, upon entry, by a towering T-Rex named Sue and a couple of elephants. Looking to my left, I saw a sign for a special exhibit that had been at my beloved museum, too. Reacquainting myself with its myriad delights would have cost $11, so I settled for a picture of the banner and an ironic chuckle (seeing as I had been paid to guard those same artifacts only a few months ago) before embarking on my free adventure.
What made visiting a high-caliber museum like the Field Museum so exhilarating was the opportunity to compare and contrast it to my own local institutions. Their taxidermy is more dynamic. Our gem hall is more magical. I wish we were more explicit about evolution. We have the original of that fossil. I made mental notes as I walked through the exhibits. Despite different subject matter, I also found many techniques I’d like to see implemented in the history museum where I work. There were drawers that you could open, and each had a different artifact inside (under glass) which was used to discuss the who, what, when, where, and why of preservation. What an easy way to make the untouchable touchable without cheap plastic remakes or gimmicky technology!
After leaving the museum, I caught a lovely lunch with a friend from college before continuing with my shameless tourism.
The next stop, naturally, was Cloud Gate. Though I dreaded the crowds, the sun was shining and it was a Thursday afternoon, so I decided to go for it. Following a quick detour at a Panera Bread to discreetly charge my phone without ordering anything (sorry!), I hurried to Millennium Park. I would later learn that Cloud Gate, affectionately called “The Bean,” was inspired by a falling drop of mercury before it hit the ground, which is a beautiful, poetic thought. At the time, however, I was more concerned with fitting the entire skyline in a selfie with my face. In fact, I took a hilarious amount of self portraits from about 500 different angles because I looked super cute that day. Not a single person judged me. We were all in it together.
I will say this about selfies: They are wonderful. They represent the beauty we all see and feel within ourselves. They are strong, independent, and brave. Snap by snap, selfies emancipate us from our own self-critique and share our loveliness with the world. I will say this about selfie-sticks: They can be the absolute worst. I am an obstinately independent young woman, and I hate most people, but I have met some of the most charming humans while taking a natural-arm selfie. Whether they see me struggling to find the right angle and offer to take the picture for me (which usually results in a subpar photo, but–hey–it’s the thought!), or they praise my genius with a self-timer and a stack of books, I always have enjoyable conversations with other tourists. They understand. We are all in it together. Selfie-sticks eliminate the need for this sort of camaraderie. Our bubbles within ourselves are sufficient and the world falls away. I think we sacrifice a slice of our humanity each and every time we allow this to happen. As I watched couples and families isolate themselves from their fellow humans with their extra appendages, I imagined what Cloud Gate would be like if everyone partook. The silence was deafening. No one had a face, and the world was grey.
I frequently find myself traveling alone, and that lands me in some pretty awkward situations. There’s rarely a wait at a restaurant or a bar, but the easy seat is always accompanied by some glances. Imagine drinking a solitary beer on the top of the world, surrounded by couples celebrating anniversaries, best friends reuniting in the city after years apart, and families celebrating birthdays. The atmosphere is like a theater, and every conversation is a tiny, dramatic universe. A woman reveals to her friend that she can’t get pregnant, a girl flirts with a boy she’s just met on the train, a mother sings a quiet song as she bounces her baby on her knee, a man texts his lover that he’s ready to make this work. I will always be an avid eavesdropper, but there’s something about traveling alone that brings me close to breaking that fourth wall. No longer a quiet observer, I often find myself reaching out and entering the conversation, if only briefly.
“Which way is north?” a woman asked her friend next to me at the Signature Room in the Hancock Tower. I decided to come to this bar on the 95th floor, knowing I’d get to drink a beer and watch the sunset over the city without having to pay $20+ or waiting in a dozen lines. These women were talking very loud, but I tried not to judge them. Women should never feel bad about their voices.
“Hold on,” her friend responded. “I have an app on my phone.”
“That way is north,” I found myself blurting before I even realized I was talking. “After the Fall Equinox, the sun starts setting just south of west, so you can tell that this is west,” I pointed, “and that is south, etc…”
They blinked at me for a few seconds, and then the one with the app said: “But my phone says north is this way” and pointed west.
I returned to my drink. I did not speak again, but, when I went to the bathroom, I realized that the view from the toilets was just as cool as sitting at the bar. Plus, you could take pictures of yourself without awkwardly leaning over another party’s dinner. I was joined in this endeavor by a few awesome, crazy women who were just as down for taking selfies out the bathroom window as I was. They understood. We were all in it together.
Day 3 began with another early start. I made my pancakes, checked out of the hostel and made my way to Jane Addams’ Hull House museum on UIC campus. On my way, I ran into a man dressed in an orange robe.
“Peace,” he said as he approached me, and I smiled.
He started handing me things, and I took them, thinking, Sure, I guess I could use some peace. My life is kind of crazy right now. This could be exactly what I need to find some closure and start a new path.
Then, he handed me a notebook and gestured that I should write my name and a sentence about what I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything both profound and pithy, so I took his suggestion and wrote “peace.” As he moved the pen to the next blank box, I realized what was going on. Those above me had written numerical amounts…after a dollar sign. My stomach sank.
“Peace,” the man repeated as he handed me a bracelet. I took it and nervously rummaged through my backpack for my wallet. The person above had given $20. I wasn’t going to pay $20 for a weird card and a bracelet I’d probably lose in ten seconds.
“This is all I have,” I lied, handing the man a five dollar bill.
“Ten?” he asked, and I shook my head. I handed back the bracelet, but he took the fiver and gestured for me to keep the beads. He bowed and smiled. I reciprocated, but my insides were churning, and every gear in my brain was turning at warp speed. Had I just jipped some sort of monk out of money for his practice? Would my penurious nature damn my eternal soul? Did these beads mark me as some sort of easy target for more strange deals? Ironically, no peace was found that morning…
After I located Hull House, I quickly forgot about the man in the orange robe because– nerd alert–Jane Addams was pretty cool. Once considered the “most dangerous woman in America” by the FBI, Addams was an extreme pacifist, a feminist, socialist, and social justice worker in Chicago who started an intentional, cooperative community for women and immigrant families on Halstead Avenue.
The museum is very small but full of information. I wish I had been there for the special tour on gender and sexuality, but it is only offered on specific days, and Friday was–alas!–not one of those days. Instead, I was my own guide through a plethora of interesting facts about the lives of Addams and her fellow progressives, the development of the neighborhood surrounding Hull House, the labor movement and socialism in the U.S., and more! What impressed me the most was how much information the museum managed to convey while still keeping the exhibits clean and crisp. The house did not feel crowded, but my brain was tingling with excitement at every turn. If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend supporting this museum with your presence and a small donation.
After Hull House, I found myself nearly starving to death trying to get downtown for lunch. I had yet to taste Chicago style pizza, and, decided to carpe de pizza at this, the mid-point of my adventure. I went to Giordano’s, which was recommended to me by a friend who used to live in Chicago. The pizza was almost $30. Upon seeing it, I regretted nothing, knowing that it could likely feed me for the rest of my life.
As I was waiting on my pizza to arrive (expect to wait ~45 minutes for the pie), I overheard the man dining alone at the high-top in front of me tell our waitress that he was from Ohio. I felt the words bubbling up in my throat. “I’M FROM OHIO, TOO!” I could have said. “DOESN’T MATTER WHAT PART BECAUSE I GREW UP HERE SO I CAN SAY ANYTHING ABOUT ANYWHERE. WANT TO SHARE A TABLE???” Hunger stopped me from acting on these impulses and I watched a silent football game on the TV above my head instead. It was college football, but I thought it was the NFL for almost thirty minutes.
(Side bar: this is still Day 3, but the evening of Day 3 and the majority of Day 4 are pretty similar in character and content, so it made narrative sense to break there…)
After surviving the pizza adventure, I navigated my way to Hyde Park to meet up with an old roommate and dear friend who had seen me at my best and my worst but had not seen me in at least a year. I was worried that I would be a bother or that we would find ourselves with nothing to say, but I forgot all that the moment I saw her. She and her partner and her adorable dog were so perfect. After settling in, we drove to Ravenswood for dinner with the two other friends we had lived with after college. It was an Oberlin family reunion I desperately needed. I love all my new Cleveland friends, but there’s something so easy being with people you’ve known for a while…it’s like, you’ve already built that shared context for living, and, although you’ve since had different experience, you’ll always be able to pick up where you left off.
We got Indian food and then headed back to Hyde Park for the night. The next day, we walked dogs on the beach and strolled around the University of Chicago campus. Later, I met up with another Oberlin friend I used to live with in a co-op while she and her fiancee brewed beer in their kitchen.
I headed back to the city for the evening, to stay in a hostel near Wrigley Field. The hostel was alright, but not my scene. It was younger and louder than I cared for, and there were more snorers in my room than I have ever encountered in a hostel. The beds were comfortable and the showers had good pressure. A free breakfast was also a plus. Hostels in Chicago really like pancakes, apparently.
Since it was my last night in Chicago, I decided to go out for a drink. I wasn’t out to flirt with guys or make new friends. I really only wanted to curl up in a quiet corner with one of the books I had purchased in Hyde Park and a drink beer before the show I was seeing later. I found the perfect place in the Red Lion Pub near Lincoln Park. It was love at first sight when I found it listed on a “Top Bars in Chicago to Host Your Book Club” article online. The atmosphere was dark and calm. The music was chill and low, and the walls were lined with books.
I ordered my beer–an imperial pint of Old Speckled Hen–and cracked open my new book, Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoior. Dressed in all black with dark eye make up, bright red lips, and a messy braid that disappeared into my scarf, all alone in a bar on a Saturday night, I felt empowered. I was living the independent woman’s dream. It was difficult to read for all the happiness and pride welling up inside my chest. I thought, I am a woman, and I am me.
After the bar, I hopped on a bus and headed further north for a performance of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at the Neo-Futurist Theater. This is a play that is actually thirty plays, acted all in the space of an hour in a random order called out by the audience. The show is different each week because the plays, written by the cast, rotate each week. Some scenes are bizarre, some touching, some laugh-out-loud funny, while others brought me to tears. I highly recommend making this a priority if you’re in Chicago. Plus, the Saturday show is at 11:30pm. No museums are open then!
The whole experience is something of a mystery until you’re actually there and going through the motions. This is what it felt like: We all lined up outside this one, nondescript building. The windows of this building were covered with what appeared to be advertisements, but were just medical diagnoses, typed in yellow letters on a blue background. I assumed my spot under “Low Testosterone,” while others fell in line under “ADHD” and “Fibromyalgia.” Then, someone handed me a trinket that would be my ticket. They unlocked the doors, and we followed each other like sheep up the stairs.
After walking through a hallway with weird pictures of all the presidents, I tried to take a picture in the photo booth. When I sat down, nothing happened. The machine wouldn’t take my dollar. The people walking past the photo booth had already seen me enter and fiddle with the red curtains. My pride wouldn’t let me leave without taking a picture, but the machine wouldn’t take my money. For a few minutes, I sat there, stewing in embarrassment, sure that I had fallen for some avant-garde, performance art prank. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the machine was just broken. It wasn’t that kind of art.
Like I said earlier, the performance itself was amazing. This is not the kind of art that tries to trap you in its modernism and make you feel like a mug. It’s the sort of art that includes you in its quirkiness, that invites you to join in the creativity as, collectively, you pull back and examine different layers of humanity. It was the perfect end to my little adventure, and, as I walked out into the night, I felt inspired. I wanted to write. I wanted to live.
Goodbye, Chicago. I woke up early and used the last bit of money on my Ventra card to jaunt over to Lincoln Park and admire the skyline one last time.
The bus ride home was long and tiresome. When I finally made it home, I nearly cried for joy. My apartment smelled like garbage from those dishes I neglected to do and the trash I forgot to take out. I had also forgotten to toss the flowers that had been rotting in their water for days before my departure, so that only added to the toxic atmosphere in the rooms. But the smell was beside the point. What mattered was that I was home. What mattered was that I was happy.