Spring comes, even to Chicago. The snow has melted. The trees lining the boulevards are lush with green leaves. Every sidewalk is thronged with pale people in shorts, over-eager for any sign of warmth after a long winter spent indoors.
On sunny days I walk home from work instead of taking the train. The trek from downtown to our apartment takes me an hour and a half. I walk past the Magnificent Mile with its upscale shops and small boutiques, past the bistros that have pulled out their patio seating, past the planters with brightly colored flowers, through Lincoln Park with its brownstones and kids drawing on the sidewalk with pastel chalk.
Yesterday I walked past a park near the Loop and crossed paths with an elderly Asian woman on a cell phone, pushing a Shih Tzu in a baby stroller. The woman was wearing a parka even though it was warm, and the dog was decked out in a little, pink bow. This is what I love most about living in cities. The random intersections of strange lives, all of the different characters one sees in passing.
The first real city that I lived in was Los Angeles. I was still living with my ex-boyfriend in Austin at the time, and when he got accepted into grad school at UCLA, I was faced with the choice of finding another roommate or taking the plunge and heading out West to sunny California. Even though L.A. had never been on my radar of prospective places, at that point I was ready to experience life anywhere that wasn’t Texas.
Los Angeles was sprawling and strange. The weekly junk mail was littered with coupons for Botox, teeth whitening, and plastic surgery. Every time I met new people, they asked me what kind of car I drove. It seemed that everyone worked in the movie industry, drove a sports car, and had impressive stories of brushes with celebrity. I did temp work at a brokerage firm, drove a Daewoo, and impressed no one.
At my job, I was forced to wear a tie and sit in a cubicle doing mind numbingly boring data entry work. I rebelled in little ways at first, by wearing cheap, studded belts I’d bought downtown beside the men in track suits who were selling bootlegged DVDs. Later I rebelled more openly by dying my hair blue, or magenta, or purple.
Once an old man drove his car through the crowd at the Farmer’s Market on the Third Street Promenade across from the building I worked in. When our building was surrounded by helicopters, police, fire engines, and ambulances, our first thought was that there was a hostage situation. We scoured the internet for any news, and then watched in horror at the first responders carrying bodies away on stretchers. I’d had lunch at the Farmer’s Market not a half hour before, and shivered when I thought about how easily it could have been my body, limp and lifeless beneath a sterile, white sheet.
I experienced my first earthquake in that building. I was sitting in my cubicle and thought I was having a strange, sudden dizzy spell, when I looked up and saw a co-worker across from me bracing herself in the doorway of her cubicle. Beyond her I could see the horizon with the palm trees, the beach, and the blue waves of the Pacific ocean tilting back and forth as the building swayed. In a panic, my first thought was, “I can’t die in this building with these people,” and I ran down eleven flights of stairs in less than four seconds to the street below. (I would later learn this is what not to do in an earthquake since there could be falling glass and downed power lines, but I was willing to take my chances).
A few months later I left my access badge with a note on my boss’s desk telling her I quit, and walked down to the Santa Monica Pier and sat on the beach with my pants rolled up, holding my tie in my hands, my purple hair blowing in the breeze.
A few months later, a friend and I took a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. We were nearly into Portland late one night when we saw a giant ball of fire in the sky. It was neon green and larger than a full moon, and hurtling down toward the city in front of us. It was so big, in fact, that as it disappeared below the tree line, we braced for impact and expected to pull into the city to discover it engulfed in flames. But when we arrived, the city was intact, and there was no sign of the meteor. The local news mentioned in passing that several people had reported seeing it, and that it had most likely burnt up in the atmosphere as it descended.
We liked Portland, but kept driving past the lush green forests and gorgeous vistas of Multnomah falls, past the snow capped peak of Mount Rainier, to the picturesque city of Seattle. As soon as we arrived, I felt like I’d come home. A fat, colorful rainbow stretched across a pale blue sky to mark our arrival. It felt, on that first day, like the city was embracing us.
I stayed in Seattle for seven years. The friend I moved there with couldn’t quite take the long, dreary, gray Seattle winters, and after our second year decided to move back to Los Angeles. I spent a couple of lonely years after that inhabiting coffeehouses, looking for a connection. After Los Angeles, the people of Seattle seemed timid. The times I tried to strike up a conversation in a coffee shop with a stranger, I was met with an inevitable look of horror as the person I was trying vainly to engage panicked over the fact that someone was speaking to him. I grew so accustomed to being stood up on dates, that I started to take my laptop with me, so that when I was left sitting at the agreed upon place…alone, I could at least be productive and write a blog about it.
I did eventually manage to collect a group of friends who made Seattle feel like home again. I got a job where I worked from my apartment. I became gym obsessed and was in the best shape of my life, culminating in the running of the Seattle Marathon.
Around that time I met C who had also lived in California. We hit it off by trading war stories and bonding over our shared dislike of everyone who wasn’t us. After a year of not getting sick of one another, he suggested we save our money and head East, to New York City. A year after that, we got rid of everything we owned, and took the long flight to the Big Apple.
My first night in the city, we went to Times Square. I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise, the bright lights of the big screens advertising Broadway shows, M&Ms and Coca Cola. There were so many people everywhere we went. On any given block I was surrounded by languages I’d never heard before, and people from all over the world.
We bounced around from Queens, to an overpriced room we rented in Brooklyn from a vegan lesbian who made a living giving colonics. We spent a summer in Brooklyn sweltering with no air conditioning, lying naked in front of a fan circulating hot air. We ate $1 pizza slices and hot dogs in Central Park on our days off work.
Eventually we settled in the slightly cheaper, but considerably less convenient Staten Island. We took the ferry to Lower Manhattan. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the island, we went for a week with no electricity. I was amazed at how the city came together after this disaster. How everyone was willing to help one another. Several times I got rides to and from Manhattan from neighbors I’d never met while the ferry and the subway were out of commission.
We spent a year and a half in NYC. I loved the excitement of exploring the city, the museums and shops. So much of the city seems so magical. There really is no place like it. What wasn’t magical was the constant crowds of people, the piles of garbage everywhere, the filth, the rats fighting in the subway, and the increasing rents. So I convinced C to leave for a place more affordable where we could still have an urban life, but also space, and the money left over to actually enjoy ourselves.
He hasn’t quite forgiven me for our departure. And now that we have nearly a year under our belt in Chicago, (after a lost, ill-fated year in Austin, TX) we’re starting to get that wanderlust again, a longing to head off into parts unknown.
These cities, my cities, are all stacked on top of one another, are superimposed in my memory, so that some mornings I wake up, thinking about going to get a breakfast taco before realizing I’m not in Austin, or walking down to the Farmer’s Market for some flowers only to remember that the market is across the country in Seattle.
Now strangers walk down streets I once walked down. New places crop up and replace the ones I used to haunt. Other people are having their own experiences, and their cities are not my cities. These cities are ghosts. They exist only in the past, only in my memory. But I love every one of them, and all of the scary, fantastic, amazing, wonderful experiences I had when I lived in them.