City life: Warm weather brings out optimism, melancholia

June 1, 2010

This is the best time, the best season to start a blog, I thought to myself as I began to write this introduction. Especially a blog about city life.


(Photo by Achy Obejas)

Warm weather in Chicago brings out the city’s optimism, but also a certain melancholia. I don’t say its beauty because I think even through the mist of snow and sleet, this city’s profile awes. But June delivers on spring’s promise of relief and, sometimes, inadvertently, highlights loneliness in a crowd.

Farmers markets, Grant Park, stoop sitting, ice cream trucks and gaggles of kids running down Lake Park.

Drumming on 63rd St.

The Puerto Rican Day Parade, pride and broken dreams wrapped up together.

Warm weather beckons us to the beach but also makes it impossible to not recognize the piles of belongings on the sidewalk resulting from eviction or foreclosure.

I wasn’t raised in Chicago, but I feel like I grew up here – when I was a kid in Indiana, we’d look at the lights of the city twinkling across the water and yearn for its tarnished magic. I read Nelson Algren avidly (stupidly, passed over Studs for years; couldn’t, and still can’t, stand Royko), and swooned equally over his portraits of street thugs and the rumors about his doomed love with Simone de Beauvoir. I wanted to tag along when they went on dates to police line-ups.

In my teen years, my friends and I would cross the state line from Indiana and sneak into La Mere Vipere, have dinner at Diana’s Restaurant in Greek Town, and then talk our way into the Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd St. or Theresa’s at 48th & Indiana.

Man, there were so many stories to tell from all those places! As a young adult in a one-room studio on Barry St. in Boys Town, I wrote secret odes to the city. I was freelancing ad copy then, acting at Cross Currents, and going to demonstrations on Division St. and City Hall.

Over the years, as a newspaper reporter (name the Chicago pub and I’ve probably worked there: The Sun-Times, which gave me my start; The Reader, where a great editor named Pat Clinton helped me find my voice; Windy City Times, which taught me about the excesses of ego and the need for responsibility; Chicago Magazine; La Raza; The Tribune, which treated me with such generosity as a writer, I really think editors like Gary Dretzka, Kevin Moore, Jimmy Warren, Tim McNulty, Kaarin Tisue, Peter Kendall and Geoff Brown must have been drinking some kinda Kool-Aid … ), I got to know the city, its people and places in the most intimate of ways.

Once, at the Sun-Times, I interviewed Jorge Luis Borges, probably one of the 20th century’s most influential and inspiring writers. My friend Jorge Casuso and I tagged along with him to a conference at the University of Chicago and then to a private tour of a Viking exhibition at the Field Museum. The U of C folks were killing themselves to impress him, name dropping philosophers and German writers. But Borges loved Jorge best: they chatted about Michael Jackson and holography. The Sun-Times wasn’t interested in that charming and ordinary moment, but I soon found a place that loved precisely that kind of portrait: The Reader.

I became a regular contributor to the Our Town section, which let me write about the lives of common folks, not just at moments of triumph or tragedy, but about their everyday existence. Some stories were about terrible things anyway – a Nazi rally in Marquette Park, for example – but I remember writing about a bait shop on Montrose Ave., just hanging out all night with the guys, and thinking I was so lucky.

At the Tribune, Rick Kogan handed me his Dr. Nightlife column but I hardly ever wrote about downtown clubs; it was a point of pride that I barely acknowledged the suburbs. I was at places like Bucket of Suds, or Lower Links, or rock climbing at midnight in Pilsen. Later, I conned McNulty into letting me do “portraits” of the city at 6 a.m. (Fulton Street Market, a diner on the West Side).

Since then, I’ve written for a slew of other pubs, and of course, about a million serious journalistic things: AIDS and Cuba, art and politics.

But I’ve also written books, literary books, which often harken back and draw from the experiences of those early Reader pieces, the Trib column and 6 a.m. stories.

I’ve fallen in love with other cities too: Havana, most prominently. But Oakland and Honolulu as well. Over the years, I’ve split my time between Chicago and those other hubs, and they’ve become, in some ways, part of my same city life.

This blog thing is relatively new for me. I already know my girlfriend will tell me this intro is too long, and I’ll have to explain it’s a mission statement, it has to describe what I’m going to try to do, give a taste of my voice. (I’m gonna win this argument.)

So there you have it: I hope to write about the city, Chicago and others, but mostly about neighborhoods, people, moments. Not giants or skycrapers, but about what I’ve always loved most – everyday life. And when I talk to the occasional celeb, like Borges, it’ll hopefully be sweet and discreet.

Here’s hoping you’ll come back. I’ll keep it short next time. Promise.