That is the song I always hear when I arrive in Chicago…the old one, not anything new and trendy. But that seems fitting since my ties to this great city are long and deep and unrequited, ties that need to be revisited from time to time for reasons that are unclear to most who know me.
What is it about Chicago? Well, many years ago, years before I began to travel the world with frequency and ease, I packed a few belongings and a friend into a car and drove here to see the Tutankhamen exhibition at the vast Field Museum of Natural History. I had never seen a city bigger than Kansas City; I had never seen a large museum nor a large body of water. And I had certainly never driven in a big city (I was 19 years old at the time). I had never had wine with my dinner in a fancy restaurant. And I had only read about the Ancient Egyptian artifacts that fascinated me so.
Then there was the brief period that I lived in South Bend, IN. Even coming from Kansas City, South Bend seemed stultifyingly small and provincial. To seek diversity and animation (as the French would say — the animation part, not the diversity part), we used to pack ourselves into that same care and drive to Chicago on Saturdays. We would visit the museums, we would go to amazing concerts and shows and we would wander the ethnic neighborhoods like Devon Street, sampling delicacies that were, for us, new discoveries and delights.
I spent many years of my early education planning to study here. As I moved from the basic study of history to a deep interest in archaeology, I longed to study at the venerable University of Chicago Oriental Institute. And I was accepted — but my visit to its hallowed halls so discouraged me about a future in archaeology (that and the lack of much scholarship money) caused me to change course in my life and focus on my library sciences skills. I had no idea that, at that time, it was a decision that could not be reversed — that there would actually be a time when I was too old to pick up that interest again and pursue it seriously.
Even though I did not move here to study, Chicago simply did not exit my life for many years. Moving from actually working in libraries to working for companies that provided automation for libraries, I found myself responsible for the technical upgrade at the amazing Chicago Public Library. On a weekly basis, I travelled to the airport in Kansas City and boarded a plane for a day trip to Chicago. Each day I arrived early in the morning, boarded the CTA and disembarked in front of the now Harold Washington Library only to retrace those steps at the end of the day. In those years, there was no time to play or enjoy this great city. If I was lucky there was time for lunch.
Then there were the years in which, well, sadly, Chicago was nothing but an airport where I occasionally changed planes. Those were the years when New York held my attention — the audition and performing year. New York, however, is no Chicago (and fans of New York would say the same in reverse). Chicago and I, well, we took a time out.
A few years ago, one December when I felt the draw of the German Christmas markets and had not time in my schedule for an international trip, a friend suggested that I come to Chicago instead. I was skeptical, but desperate for that feel of holiday cheer German style, so I tried it. In my absence, Chicago continued to be what it has always been in my mind – a livable, vibrant, interesting, and international city with amazing experiences and trend-setting dining. And it had continued to outpace many cities in our nation for fabulousness. Or, maybe it is the combination of my past and my future that engages me here. Anyway, I had a great time three years ago, catching up with museums long abandoned and adding a few new experiences to my list.
So I was not surprised when the draw to return took hold of my spirit in the last month. There was some specific shopping I needed to do that could only be done at a real Christkindlmarkt. There was something else, though. I really had not approached a large city on my own since the surgery. Yes, I went to New York, but that was safe and managed for me. I needed that feel of walking the streets, figuring out the transit maps, getting myself here and there, and dealing with the cold and discomfort all on my own. And so, here I am.
On this trip, I have added new experiences to old…yesterday, I went to Oak Park and visited the Frank Lloyd House and Studio, particularly fascinating in light of my visit to Taliessen West last year. And now I’m headed out to visit that very same Oriental Institute that drew me so many years ago.
By the time I get on the plane to head home to DC tonight, I will have blended some new with the old in that way that our lives continue to be a tapestry of experience and learning if we allow it, and for this experience, and for this wonderful city, I give thanks. Thank you, Chicago, for letting me both remember and grow, yet again, like the eternal toddler that I seem to be.