People who uphold Lincoln Park as the root and hub of all evil in Chicago clearly haven't visited similarly named — and oft confused — Lincoln Square.Those who vilify Lincoln Park's gentrification and the beautiful, terrible people who enjoy their lives, the Starbucks and pub grub and beer specials and lazy hangover brunches, would likely hate Lincoln Square just as much, for slightly different reasons. Here, the beautiful, terrible people have beautiful, downy-haired children and perfect pups to match, leashes lashed to strollers that cost more than I pay for rent. NPR is programmed station No. 1 on the dials of their Volvo hatchbacks. Which they take to Trader Joe's down the street every Saturday. Starbucks is packed by 6:45 a.m. every weekday with Lycra-clad men returning from their leisurely morning jogs. Everyone here is like this. Really. White privilege, mine included, has set up shop here and has made no plans to depart, joining (edging out?) the Germans and Mexicans who used to populate it exclusively.
But I am not holier than thou (or anyone), and I can't mask my ardent admiration with snark here. So: a love letter. To my life. I love where I live, and I love the people here. I took my laptop to Starbucks this morning, intent on writing something entirely different than this. I stayed until the chill in the air was more than my thin summer cardigan could handle. Somewhere in there, a couple sat down next to me, dog and baby in tow. As always, I was all earbuds and aloofness, but not enough that I couldn't eavesdrop a bit when a man in a Speed Racer T-shirt rolled up with his own dog in tow, plus an identical stroller and — gasp — near-identical baby. (It happens.) He shyly admitted he'd just bought the stroller and was worried he'd strapped his son in too tightly. They talked for a few minutes; the dogs sniffed each other. My only interaction with the couple was their stammered apologies when their empty cup blew under my chair, and I reached down to get it for them. Inside, a little boy gnawing on the straw of his chocolate milk and the sausage-and-bread remains of a breakfast sandwich pressed his nose to the window's glass. Wide brown eyes following the couple's big dog's every move, he was dreaming of one of his own. He'll get one for Christmas. A future entry may concern the other feeling I get when I see things like this. It's even warmer and fuzzier a feeling, yet the entry will be horrifying and inappropriate, as it will concern a 26-year-old girl — this one, in fact, who claims to be so fucking urban it hurts — fantasizing about being a participant, not an observer, in these scenes of domestic bliss. To be one half of a perfect, beautiful, terrible couple. Dog and baby in tow. Empty Starbucks cups blowing in the wind. But I will not mention knights. Or Camrys. So help me. (So help me, also, not to let my fantasy baby have an iPod when she turns 4. I saw that today, too.)
I love this neighborhood so much that I just agreed to renew my lease for a third year, making my stint in my third-floor one-bedroom, all old wood and odd angles, the longest I've ever lived anywhere not owned by my parents. I can't see my guitar leaned anywhere but against the wall, next to my bookcase. Can't imagine a coat closet that actually closes. Even when I'm alone, when I'm not too obsessed with the solitude, the fuzziness of this feeling toward my surroundings is almost too much to bear. Just out my door is a beautiful park with a perfect gazebo, which is overtaken on Sundays by a bizarre group of musicians with djembes and bongos and congas. They play until the sun goes down and soft yellow incandescent globes around the top of the gazebo take over the space's illumination. The rest of the week: Little Leaguers and their shouting parents; ex-sorority girls sunning on blankets, cell phones to ears; adult softball teams fueled by corporate ire and cheap beer; Hispanic men pedaling freezer pushcarts full of bomb pops, strawberry shortcake Good Humors and La Reina bars; Eastern European men exchanging good-natured curses over evening bocce ball games. I can hear the ice cream carts' bells jingling, the whooping team sports applause, And puppies. There are always puppies. As summer subtly shifts to fall — more subtly than usual, seeing as summer didn't…really…happen — baseball mitts have turned to football pads. Orange cones now dot the grass on the west side of the park, and hordes of boys, bulky and clumsy in their new uniforms, gather to run at and pummel each other as I return from work every evening. Fall in Chicago is unmatched in my heart — fuzzier, more wave-to-your-neighbor than any other time of year.
This warmth found me just a few times when I was living in New York; in the only instance I really remember, I had just moved to the city and had my first migraine ever. It lasted two days, and I was convinced I would die from it. (My sister, queen of the soul-crushing migraine, must be scoffing right now.) Around 4:30 a.m. on the second day, I was finally sick of lying in the stifling dark of my sublet on the Upper East Side, so I put on my shoes and went for a walk. West on 90th Street to Fifth Avenue, then south. Past the darkened museums and shuttered boutiques. As I made my way toward Rockefeller Plaza — where I arrived just as the Today Show brought the cameras outside to pan the crowd — the red plastic crates of cold milk and cans of soda were just arriving at the convenience stores, and copies of the Sunday Times sat in pristine stacks, tethered together with plastic ties, outside every coffee shop. Delivery people and dozing transients and sleepy shop owners — and me.
I was a totally different person when I lived in New York. It's hard to describe how; it's just something I feel. I'd say I've been four or five people since I graduated from college in 2005. But I have an intimate understanding of the feeling I'm describing, though it was rare and fleeting until I came to Chicago. It's belonging.