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The first time I lived in Chicago, it was in the Ravenwood section. I loved the greystone buildings, and the apartment I rented a room in was really quite beautiful, filled with original woodwork and detail. It was an easy walk to the train station, except on rainy days. Nothing was convenient on a rainy day in Chicago without a car. I really enjoyed living in Chicago then, it was big but not impersonal. Although I never quite adjusted to all the television shows being an hour earlier: how on earth were working people supposed to watch the evening news?
I was fascinated with the El in Chicago; the subway lines were convenient, but the visibility from the El was mesmerizing. I used to ride around in the loop and just look at all the Chicago architecture, just for entertainment. Or I’d take a trip out to the city edges on the El and discover new neighborhoods - the view was so much better than on a bus. It was always worth the price of the individual trip; there were no passes in those days, just individual tokens that you had to stand in line to buy at the station.
I knew DB Kaplan’s even before I moved to Chicago. At least, that’s what my memory tells me: it was mom, dad and me at lunch at the Deli in the top floor of the Water Tower – and grandma and grandpa B? If so, that was before 1981. The menu had an amazing assortment of sandwiches, huge, seemingly infinite variety in meats, cheeses, toppings (alfalfa sprouts, anyone?) and condiments. But best of all was the cheesecake: creamy and smooth, with a certain resistance to the fork, but not heavy. I loved that cheesecake, I’ve not had anything like it since.
I have no idea how or when I discovered the creperie place. It was on North Clark, I think, or maybe Lincoln? Mom bought me my first legal drink there, and got quite a kick out of being carded at age 38. I loved the crepes, and their cheesecake was excellent too – even their flavored cheesecake, which I often don’t like. I didn’t eat out much the first time in Chicago, generally only if Jay came up for the weekend. I remember going to Evanston for Chinese or Pizza once, although why, and with whom, does rather evade me now.
East Wacker Drive and Lower Wacker Drive. Even before the Blues Brothers movie, I thought that was a funny name for a street. Wacker. Having streets on different levels, elevated or underground, or stacked on top of each other was a revelation to me. As were the bridges that opened and closed to let ships through. Driving took on new dimensions, quite literally, in Chicago. I convinced Dad to use public transportation when he came to visit me, rather than drive around and have to worry about finding parking. Tokens were much cheaper than a parking lot, or a ticket.
I was amazed the first time I saw Oak Street Beach. A public swimming beach, right there in the middle of a big city! Nestled into a corner where Lake Shore Drive meets Michigan Avenue, a few blocks away from the Water Tower and the John Hancock building. People were just walking up, dropping their stuff on the beach, taking off their layer of street clothes, revealing the bathing suit underneath and heading into the water. Walking along the beach was enough for me, I wasn’t prepared to walk around in a bathing suit in front of all of Chicago.
Working at the Art Institute, I spent a lot of time walking around the loop at lunch or after work. There was a café across the street that I always wanted to visit, it seemed somehow old school and sophisticated, but my lunch break was too short. When I finally did go, it was for a chocolate shake after saying a difficult goodbye to Jay on a Sunday afternoon. Downtown was deserted and desolate, with cold wind pushing at me; the café was the only thing open and a chocolate shake was all I could afford. It tasted like straw.
The sequence of public institutions and park spaces at the lake shore was beautiful, and a necessary relief from the closed in, cramped nature of the Loop. There was always activity in Grant Park, either busloads of tourists or softball teams, joggers, bicyclists or Chicagoans taking a break from working in the Loop. Lincoln Park was a smaller, more peaceful park just far enough away from the Loop that I only visited it on weekends, although it was also on the lake shore. It had a small zoo that was plagued with children, so I avoided that part of it.
The second time I lived in Chicago, I was 21 and discovered the Rush Street bars, in no small part due to “About Last Night.” With ladies’ night somewhere every weeknight, it was an inexpensive entertainment and better than sharing the apartment with Merideth. However, the fastest way home meant driving along Chicago Avenue past Cabrini Green, and the late hour prompted every single cabbie to comment about it. I always pointed out in return that on the corner of my street was one of the big hospitals, so if anything happened, they would be very close to medical treatment.
I enjoyed the diversity of life in Chicago. There were people from all over the US and from other countries living there, you could hear any language on the subway, or in a museum. You could see art-house movies in Chicago, and bands of all kinds came to play in various venues. I loved the quiet tree-lined streets in the near north neighborhoods, stone buildings with one apartment per floor, and dreamed of living in a place like that someday. The lakeshore parks were beautiful, although there didn’t seem to be many parks as you moved west across the city.
Marshall Fields’ flagship store downtown was a fabulous place. The building alone was beautiful, with the great ironwork clocks on the outside of the building, and the large, atrium that soared up several stories from ground floor, which had the cosmetics, perfume and accessories display that is required all department stores. I remember buying truffles on the second floor; the case was right next to the iron balustrade, and staring out and over the large atrium. This was where the “open concept” began. It was a marvelous place to shop and I remember being very disappointed when ceased to be.
In the last ten years, I have often considered moving back to Chicago. It has art, music, parks, culture, and is near big water, but it is not as big, bad, dirty or expensive as New York, although in the past two years, it has become much more gritty by all reports. I would be closer to what family I have left. I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes. I can’t decide if I’d live in the city or out in a suburb; I’d be able to afford a much nicer place in the city than I could in Gotham.
I loved Bonn. It was old, historic, beautiful, and with a large pedestrian mall downtown; it felt so familiar and so foreign at the same time. It was relatively small and quaint, and so easy to walk almost anywhere you wanted to go, but with buses, subways and a streetcar, there was ample public transportation to go further afield. The university students played chicken with the cars on nearly every street. If you were really bored, Cologne was a ten minute train ride north, where you’d find just about everything. Life was easy in Bonn, even as a poor student.
I’m not fond of sauces or condiments, but I certainly took to the German pairing of mayonnaise and French fries. I still love it. I had no problems with the German diet, except for sauerkraut, liverwurst and some of the seriously stinky cheeses. Not being a sweet breakfast person, I loved the “kaesebrot” breakfast – cheese, and maybe a few slices of wurst, on a buttered Kaiser roll (not the wimpy, soft rolls in the US). I sometimes indulged in the amazing cakes and tarts during the afternoon Kaffestunde, which really did explain the German practice of a very light dinner.
If you were willing to walk a few minutes from the main university building, and wait on a line that generally went down the stairs and nearly out the door, the university cafeteria provided an amazing lunch deal. For about $1.50, you got a huge bowl of soup that was always so thick it was essentially stew, a hard Kaiser roll and a wurst, or sausage. It was such a bargain, you felt compelled to go. I loved the green bean soup and whatever wurst it was always paired with; if I learned that was the day’s menu, I went.
The first time I lived in Germany, there were two Monicas in our group. Although I didn’t know either one well, I ended up spending a fair amount of time with what I thought of as the loud Monica – from New Jersey. At the end of the term, we travelled to Paris together; thanks to her, I have the memory of a dinner at the George V hotel. The other Monica, Snarky Monica, barely deigned to talk to us then, but we both returned to Bonn after graduation and I learned she was indeed snarky, and a lot of fun.
I loved how clean everything was in Bonn. The streets and shops, subways and streetcars were tidy. Public transportation was efficient, and on time – announcing a minute’s delay on the trains caused consternation and dismay. It was expected that things would work, and that it took effort to keep everything that way. I didn’t love that everything shut down on weekends, at 2 on Saturdays, and on holidays. They were probably two sides of the same coin, but I didn’t see it then. The unrelieved activity of New York, and the regular breakdowns in public transportation were quite a change.
The second time I lived in Germany, I had a room in a dorm on the banks of the Rhine river. I was impressed then at the central location and waterfront location, and the fact it still is a dorm it is even more impressive. I used to go up to the roof deck and watch the river, morning, noon, and night. In part, it was the easiest way to escape my claustrophobic room, but there was no decent park nearby, and after living on the Quad at K College, I was very used to studying outside in decent weather.
I rented a bike from the dormitory. Most days I walked to the university, bouncing along with my walkman, playing U2 or Bowie or whatever - the bike stand at the main university building was a joke, there were always too many bikes. I saved the bike for when I went shopping at the grocery store several blocks away from the dorm. The bike was also great for getting to and from parties: bars in Germany closed around midnight, and buses stopped running, so the city streets were deserted, but you had to be capable of actually riding your bike.
Very few students had phones in their dorm rooms – the hassle and cost just didn’t seem worth it. There were two phone cubicles downstairs that were linked to the central switchboard. I never did get the hang of transferring calls to them, I waited at the switchboard for my parents to call about once a month on a Sunday night and just sat there while I talked to them. The calls lasted about ten minutes, as international rates were still expensive, there weren’t even phone cards back then. I wrote a lot of letters to my parents, now interesting souvenirs.
I don’t think anyone had a television in a dorm room in Germany. It was still uncommon at K at the time, but again, the licensing expense was just not worth it to most university students, who paid nothing in tuition and only very minimal housing costs. There was one television in the common room up on the roof, and a group would sometimes gather to watch a popular series or show. But mostly, the students would gather in the kitchen area on each floor and talk, preferring to interact with each other rather than passively watching the boob tube.
I was surprised that I was allowed into the university orchestra. The rehearsals really challenged my ability to understand spoken German in a crowded room – I was used to a one-on-one exchange, not group dialogue and conversation. I had never studied the special musical vocabulary; why would it come up in German 301? I didn’t realize it then, but I relied heavily on the visual cues from the conductor and the other musicians to figure out what was going on. And whoever I was sitting next to, sharing a music stand with. It was challenging and exhilarating – I loved it.
I was ready to live in the bookstores in Germany. Maybe it was because Bonn is a university town (40,000 students – yes, that’s right!), but there were several bookstores in town. None of them had much printed in English, but I was reading novels in German during my second stay. I was surprised by the lack of “coffee table” books and the number of political and historical books on the shelves, with a smaller proportion of fiction titles, rather the reverse of bookstores in the US. I wonder if he bookstores still exist or if they’ve gone like bookstores here.
I was fascinated with the process of getting groceries in Germany. There were “supermarkets” with a dizzying array of stuff I didn’t recognize. But the idea that you had a local baker – in your own neighborhood, you didn’t have to “go to town” - open even on weekends and sold crispy rolls and delectable breads baked daily, made me want to live in Germany permanently. Don’t forget the butcher. Or the fish monger. And the idea that people went shopping almost daily – because, get this: it was in your local neighborhood, so you didn’t have to out of your way?
There was a rhythm to life in Germany. Not a wild, chaotic, freeform jazz improvisation like New York. It was lively, changing, but with a certain underlying order and structure like Vivaldi. I found it a very comfortable rhythm, although I could see the potential for real disruption with larger issues of immigration and the question of East Germany. I really liked living in Bonn, it was the right size for me. I didn’t understand a lot of the political issues, not being familiar with the party histories, but it wasn’t necessary. But my whole family was an ocean away.
My final days in Germany were rather surreal. In part, it was the suddenness of the decision to leave due to medical reasons. There was much to do, and I was consuming a lot of ibuprofin and alcohol, a lot is lost in a haze. Saying goodbye to my friends in the dorm, I realized how much I loved living there, how many connections I had made; leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. A day before flying back, driving with Molly to the Sting concert at the Loreley at Sankt Goarshausen – it was a perfect dream.
In my adult life, I’ve lived in Chicago, Bonn, New York City and my current south shore village on Long Island. The common element to all of those was a large body of tidal water (yes, Lake Michigan has tides, look it up!). New York is exciting, without a doubt, but life there is very expensive and not very user friendly - except for public transportation. I loved the smaller size of Chicago and Bonn, which both have active culture scenes and easy access to recreation activities. Bonn has probably changed significantly since the German capital moved back to Berlin.
Waiting. And hoping. That maybe we won’t lose power. That maybe we won’t actually experience a torrential downpour or flooding from the bay. Yesterday was a day spent like a prisoner awaiting sentencing, but today, finally, the storm is upon us today and it doesn’t quite seem so scary. Although this morning was soft and grey, breezy with a faint mist and no signs of life anywhere, by afternoon there was more traffic on the road than there was yesterday, when all was quiet and still, everyone either making their escape already or glued to the television watching Irene’s progress.
I am fortunate that there is only the yard to clean up after the hurricane, however backbreaking I may personally find that work to be. Yes, there are branches down and leaves everywhere, but there’s no significant damage to the house, and we are dry. This particular location was very lucky – one street over and a few blocks down, there was water everywhere. Trees are down on power lines everywhere and significant power outages across the island. Never mind what’s happened upstate and Vermont. Thankfully, I still won’t need to use the hurricane rider or flood insurance for the house.
I very much wanted another day off. I was a bit taken aback by how much I resented (that is really the only word that fits, even after serious consideration) having to go to work, even if it was working from home. I don’t know if it is the current work of writing reports and creating sales presentations, the workload, or general malaise, but I am not in a good frame of mind about work right now. This summer is nearing the end, and I don’t have any sense of it having been summer. Something has to give, and soon.
Ten years ago today, West, Helene and I arrived separately at the hotel in Atlanta for our first Dragon*Con. It was a terrific adventure, four of the most intensely memorable days of my life, and it was that experience that prompted me to start writing in this space. I find now, however, that I am not able to write something of interest every day of every month, so this is my final entry. Perhaps it is just for a while, or it might be permanent, I don’t know, but I am going on hiatus. Thanks for the virtual soapbox, Jeff!
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