There is a certain quality big cities have at night that other cities don’t. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it—and driving down the freeway, surrounded by the night and Chicago’s lights, I am reminded of the quality, the thing, that cities like this have. It’s here in the car tonight, while we debate the merits of tacos versus a place called Longman and Eagles for dinner, and it’s there when we pull into L’Patron (tacos won), an electrically painted Mexican restaurant sandwiched between a Walgreen’s parking lot and a busy intersection. Inside it’s hot and a little sweaty, and there may be karaoke happening around the corner, but it smells incredible—salsa and spicy mix with roasting meat, and we leave with a bag full of heavy, pungent food, escaping into the humid night which, though filled with the roaring of car noise, still feels quieter than the raucous interior of the restaurant. This is a big city, I think over and over again, and tell Alexa while we sit in the little court yard in the back of their house, sinking into the good food and good company but ever aware that we are surrounded by people on all sides. Rats, too, as we discover later—the bushes lurching alarmingly as something large scurries through. Portland, comparatively, is downright provincial, is what I tell her, and she laughs. But it’s kind of true. The next morning I get on the EL alone to go to the Art Institute, one of my favorite museums of all time, and that big city feeling gets reinforced. Maybe it’s the grit of a place? I don’t know, but when I get out of the dark underworld that the El whooshes through it’s there again, lingering—people pushing past in a whirlwind of color and different smells, someone singing gospel music over a loudspeaker, the sounds reverberating off the neck-achingly tall buildings, these are true skyscrapers. I’m dizzied, a little, as my mind tries to catch up to where I am—for a minute I get mountains and man-made confused, thinking of the height of the world we left behind in the cascades and this one I’m standing in. I get a little turned around getting off the subway, caught as I am in this big city, the train rattling below me and the wind blowing down the street, so I seek refuge in a coffee shop—not a starbucks, because I’m too proud you know, but a place called Intelligentsia (which I learn later is still a chain but at least it’s a local one?) and I might as well have stepped back into my little provincial town it’s so reminiscient of a place I’d find on any Portland city corner. Elitist baristas? Check. Moms in yoga pants? Check. Casual businessman staying hip with the kids? Check. Ahhhhh the comfort of familiarity! Armed now with caffeine I venture back out, this time with better luck. The people here could be people from anywhere, really, because Chicago I think is one of those melting pot places, where people from all over congregate in a mish-mash of culture and ethnicity and color. Here we are all together, passing each other on this sidewalk, penned in all sides by unfathomably tall buildings, comrades somehow in this mass of humanity.
Millenium Park and the Bean (sorry, CloudGate) wait for me in all its reflective glory, throwing the skyline back in a shiny mockery of the true height of what’s behind me. People pose in front, taking selfies, one girl does a dancer-esque pose while her boyfriend counts down. Through my phone viewfinder, I can’t get enough of the skyline in to capture how it really looks, it’s a pale imitation of the raucous color and light around me. So I keep walking, faster than everyone around me, weaving through the crowd and the garden surrounding CloudGate, and on towards the museum. As I get closer to where I think the museum entrance should be, a symphony keeps getting louder and louder. They must pipe it over the loudspeakers, I think, while I cross a lawn—but then, no, there on the stage is a full orchestra, dressed in plainclothes but producing some truly glorious noise. Almost running now I trip towards the stage, rapturously turning my face to the music as we all should, lay down in prayer for that swell of sound. The seats facing the stage are mostly empty and I close my eyes in the face of this surprise, here, now in this big city, a gift for me—a concert held in my honor, I’m sure, because here I am, far from home, but happy to drink in the sights, and now, the sounds.
Later, in the quiet hush of the museum, my head is alive with the memory of the music, my show. The Art Institute of Chicago is by far one of my favorite museums of all time, and now that I’m back to the house and telling Alexa the story of my morning as a big city gal, it washes over both of us, the memory of the symphony and the quiet surprise of every turn in the Art Institute, a new masterpiece, a shock of recognition around every corner. Oh wow, I would breathe over and over again, as I paced through the sweeping halls of the museum, faced with masterpieces, hung on walls so casually it felt almost sacrilegious. You know you can take pictures of the paintings there? I took photo after photo of Saruat, and Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso and my beloved Monet, and sent them to Darren (with witty commentary, naturally, although I may have appreciated that more than he did). There’s a reverence that’s demanded from a person when you walk into a museum, I think, and I was reverential, believe me. I stood in the Monet room and did a slow turn, because here is the haystack series I fell in love with in college, here his lily pond series my mom read me books about. Here it all is, the globby paint his genius made real. This is a kind of church too, I think, before I go visit Nighthawk.
On the way to camping we stop at Paquod’s Pizza and eat deep dish, a pizza you can really sink your teeth into—layers of cheese and garlic, and giardineria, a mix of pickled vegetables and heaven. Our corner of the restaurant is dark, wood paneling along the walls and a baseball game on the big screen. There’s a table next to us with a family of four who are deeply invested in the game, I forget immediately who’s playing. Our waitress, a high school age-ish girl, takes our order for lunch specials with a charmingly Midwestern accent, all clipped ends and rounded middles, and I almost want to laugh and congratulate her, because I’ve met so few people with a real accent, the kind I want to hear. While we’re there a huge storm rolls through, enormously huge, so that when we get back out the car and there are downed tree branches everywhere, Alexa asks me, are we crazy for doing this? I say of course we are, but I still think we should. Of course, she agrees, because you see this is my kindred spirit friend, the kind you only find once in awhile, if you’re lucky. We met in Senegal and shared two halves of the same head for four months while we were in that place, and being back together is a sigh of relief. On the way to Wisconsin, as we wend our way through an idyllic landscape of farms and country houses, Midwest living the way it should be done, and apparently is, we relive the memories of that time, filling in blanks in the other one’s stories like an old married couple. Eating Ethiopian food at Lalibella, the time we stayed at a brothel, the most scared we ever were—it was the time we got dropped off by a taxi in the middle of nowhere and almost got on a bus to Kedeougou—what we should do with all that fabric we brought home, N’ice Cream, our favorite restaurants, where we should bring our boyfriends when we go back, listening to Africa while the rains actually did come down, right before we got to Keur Massa Massa. There’s no one else I can talk to about that time like I can to the people, especially the person, who I did it all with. Even though we’re driving through the green of the Wisconsin countryside, I think I’ll always remember it mixed with the images of that hot and dry place, of half-finished buildings and dirt roads, of a language so foreign I only hear it in my dreams.
Alexa assures me this kind of camping will be nothing like the Pacific Northwest, but I already know that (little compares, let’s be honest), but I also know that anywhere with a few trees can feel like home to me. Our campsite is down a little driveway, fenced in with a dense bush I don’t know the name of, and our campsite is ringed with trees that we can just barely see the tops of in the dying light. They aren’t pine like I’m used to (I survey them the next morning skeptically—they grow all their branches at the top…not trustworthy) and we watch the sun set in the little circle of sky they outline for us. By some miracle we get a fire started, and then we eat chips and dip for dinner and drink wine, just two girls in the world, camping in Wisconsin. As you do.
Since we left that big city feeling behind for awhile, it’s all the more prominent when we get back into it, but this time it’s Milwaukee, the sister city of my hometown. Though it’s certainly smaller than Chicago, it’s still a lot of buildings, more than I expected. I guess I don’t really know that much about Milwaukee, I admit to Alexa over brunch at a place called Wolf Peach, where we down Bloody Mary’s and think about what our very best options for food will be. In case you haven’t noticed, Alexa is my foodie friend, in addition to my soul friend, the person I can eat chips and sour cream and onion dip with one night and a rack of lamb with the next. She’s a great pal. Milwaukee proves to be more than I anticipated, spread out along Lake Michigan as it is—a mind scramble to me, because did you know Chicago is also on Lake Michigan, and so is Detroit? We walk along the water, watch a competitive kite fest, and drink more coffee (this time from a not-chain, let’s hear it for independent roasters) and stop in the lobby of an art museum that looks like a spaceship. Then we decide that a trip to Milwaukee wouldn’t be complete without some good old-fashioned beer, so we venture into Miller Valley and check out their enormous operation, and when I say enormous operation I mean they produce 10 million gallons of beer a year. Think about that. You could swim in it. You could maybe fill Lake Michigan with it. No you couldn’t, it’s still bigger. But it’s a lot of beer, and we do the tour so we can sit in the sun after and drink their beer, for free, and the beer of the companies they’ve bought—a much better option, sorry to say.
Chicago, when we leave Milwaukee, welcomes us back with big city open arms, skyscrapers still there, all those people still milling around. The house is now familiar, a tall brownstone-style building with flowers in front and other, tall brownstone-style buildings on either side. Trees line the street, and a lady sits on the neighboring stoop reading. Homey, cozy, that’s what the neighborhoods are here. I always love to see that about a city, where people live, because isn’t that the heart of it? And even in these places where people go home to, there’s a sense that you’re still—even in your little world of home—in a big, humming network of buildings and cars and restaurants, stores and parks, museums and symphonies. I open the door to leave for dinner and there, at our feet, is a whole maze of people and places and things, begging us to delve into them, to discover. At the restaurant we wait, because a block party is happening and we can’t cut through, so we walk around the block to a back entrance to the place, just a door set back into a wall of brick, painted an industrial black and marked only by an A. The hallway is narrow and dark, the walls brick and the lighting appropriately retro-modern, and people linger at the end, where the entrance to the restaurant must be. We scoot back there to go sit at the bar, and for the next hour we order small plate after small plate of exquisite food—polenta fries and grilled eggplant, lamb ribs and meatballs, and we drink and laugh and talk about religion. Behind us an outdoor courtyard glitters, lights strung up under a ceiling that has been opened to the sky. Beyond the lights are the stars, twinkling faintly, drowned out by the light my kind has made.
When I really know that Chicago is big—a big, real city—is the next day though, because feeling is made real when we stand on the shore of Lake Michigan and look back from a concrete jetty towards the skyline. There the skyscrapers crowd together, and I think for a minute of standing down in between them, a jarring thought from this distance. The lake stretches on forever, dotted with white sailboats. A family kayaks in the little bay the jetty has created. I’m warm from the sun radiating down on us, and from the concrete under me where we sit, feet dangling over the edge. Here it all looks quiet, and still, but I know the truth, that under the skin of that skyline is a thrumming, bustling, busy place, of smell and sight and people rushing towards whatever they think they need. I also know that in there was a small space I inhabited for awhile, and where my dear friend is, and that lets me leave with a good taste in my mouth and my heart a little less intact, because a small piece of it became a part of the big city too—a little of my energy now buzzes around Chicago, ready to enchant the next person to land, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by this layered, complex and beautiful place.