(A brief pause in The Ripple Effect—
it’s been an intense few weeks)
Last summer, on what started as a lovely stroll along the lakefront, a friend of mine who was born and raised in Chicago scoffed at me when I attempted to declare my citizenship of the city. “This has been my kind of town for over forty years!” I protested. “Doesn’t count,” she declared. “You didn’t grow up here, so that makes you a poseur.” We waved goodbye and headed off in different directions, with me hoping that she might get swept off the shore by an errant wave. How long do you have to live in a place before you can claim it as your own? I wondered as I walked away. True, there had been a stint in the suburbs that many Chicago natives would consider disqualifying, even though I had lived in a variety of city neighborhoods both before and after that jaunt away from the lake. People here are such sticklers —just the fact that I put ketchup on my hot dog is enough to get me kicked out of my zip code.
I felt a bit rebellious as I wandered among the patches of native plants and wildflowers that flourished in the great garden next to Millennial Park and thought about how much I loved Chicago. This memory is pre-pandemic, so my defiance was not of the rules announced by our mayor—she had shut down the lakefront after hordes of people descended upon it the first warm day of spring. It was my own need to push back against the perception that I hadn’t earned the right to claim the city as my own. I may be an outcast because of my condiment choice, but my memories are powerful and the connection I felt was one I refused to deny.
The prairie looked like a Monet, all pastels and smudged edges, fitting since some of the originals hang in the Art Institute across the street. When the garden was first installed, the iron girders that enclosed it were black against the sky, an ugly framework that mirrored the railroad tracks that had been filled in to accommodate the park. The hedges within them were mostly twigs with a few pops of green, but posted signs assured us that one day the bushes would obscure the iron lattice. Next to the garden was the great lawn that was open to the sky and stars, and concerts were held there that filled the soft air with music that fed your soul as you lounged on quilts and fed yourself fried chicken.
Even when we lived in the suburbs, my family always came back to the lakefront when the weather warmed up. I remember one perfect summer evening when we parked in the underground garage and then climbed the ramp leading up to the grassy sitting area. My six-year-old son had been allowed to bring a large bucket of Legos as his distraction of choice, provided he carry it himself from the car. Joyful at the prospect of a picnic and possibly ice cream, he swung the bucket in a circle over his head. Alas, centrifugal force had taken the night off, and we watched in horror as a thunderous storm of primary colors rained down on our heads, red and yellow and blue plastic bricks bouncing maniacally in every direction, sliding down the ramp toward the very bowels of the parking garage and through God knows whatever may have been on that cement floor. Remember life before Covid19 germs? We scooped up the Legos with our bare hands and threw them back in the bucket, and my son played with them for the rest of the evening. I told myself it would strengthen his immune system.
My children grew up on these lawns, watching fireworks and concerts from huge blankets covered with friends and food and decks of Uno cards. Seeing those hedges fill in as the years went by was like having a piney growth chart to measure their march toward adulthood. Now the greenery obscures the framework, with the parental support barely peeking through.
The Chicago that is immortalized in print by writers like Carl Sandburg or Studs Terkel has a palette that is primarily dark – lots of gritty browns and steely grays and bloody stockyards, with blue collar workers and blatant racism against black families. But it also has a lake with hues as varied as the Caribbean, aquas and indigos that seem impossible in a body of water with a mud bottom and a booming population of zebra mussels. The city is full of contrasts and inconsistencies across the full color spectrum, and its reflection through a prism would be a rainbow of people and problems.
I recognize the flaws of the city, even as I claim it as my own. We all have issues that are embarrassing, I thought, as I held the hot dog in my left hand and firmly squirted a wavy line of the forbidden red nectar. It mixed with the bright yellow mustard and a relish so green that it glowed in the dark.