My first attempt at parallel parking sucked. Although I’d lived in Chicago until my high school graduation, I didn’t go downtown much, so parking between tightly packed cars was never an issue. But now, newly returned to the Midwest several years after high school, I needed to learn to squeeze between two cars with millimeters to spare. That is, if I were to carry my scant life belongings into my friend Lisa’s Lakeview apartment. My 32-inch Zenith might end up being a little unwieldy, but I did just survive a cross-country drive with my now ex-boyfriend and a breakdown in Vegas, so I could probably handle the TV too.
Lisa begged to differ. Not only did my park job need to be corrected ASAP, but my TV wasn’t coming anywhere near her more sophisticated model, so I could just keep it in the car forever as far as she were concerned. Either way, with Lisa’s direction, I maneuvered the car into place and only the threat of theft motivated me to manhandle the Zenith into her hall closet. It was a Friday, thank God, and I had a few days before the real world would begin, a world that involved finding a job as soon as possible before my remaining 800 dollars disappeared.
There was no time to lose, but after wrangling my stuff into Lisa’s place, I combed my hopeless hair into some approximation of a style and joined some college friends at a neighborhood bar. With my initial Miller Lite order, I immediately ensconced myself into the Midwest lifestyle I’d only just left a few years before with one thought: I was back in Chicago, and nothing would take me away again.
Except that it was so hot in the middle of August and I had no idea how to ride the el to my many temp agency appointments and I was sleeping on a scratchy futon in the middle of Lisa’s living room.
And after a weekend of partying with friends, I only had $750 in my pocket.
On Sunday night, Lisa tried to give me a crash course in riding the el. I was to walk to one of many nearby el stops, make sure I picked the right route on the map, put a token in the machine and make my way up to the platform. Once the el stopped, I needed to get on quickly, grab onto the metal bar above me (open seats would be rare), hang on, and PAY ATTENTION TO WHEN YOUR STOP IS CALLED. I listened carefully, repeated the instructions in my head before bed, and woke up the next morning ready to wow Chicago’s temp agencies with my el managerial prowess. I dressed in a black top, black blazer, chiffon skirt, black tights, and black pumps – all perfect wardrobe choices for muggy humidity that could take a camel down.
I sweated my way to an el stop, figured out which line to take, and melted into the city. Many stops were called, and many were ignored, which is how I got to know the city in those early days: getting off at the wrong station, wandering around, eventually finding my way back to Wacker or Michigan via alleyways and long-cuts and doing it all over again on the way home. Yet, nothing pumped me up more than sailing over the trees, horizontal to rooftops, than those trips on the el. Then there was the sheer noise and energy of the city. Impromptu concerts in public squares, throngs of commuters on platforms and at bus stops, store windows and doors open to the street, cars honking and heat rising and the lake wind blowing your skirt up. I absorbed every Chicago minute receptive to anything that came my way. Because so much was wonderful and new and LIFE.
Over a week’s time, I’d visited several temp agencies, faked my way through many Excel skills tests, and missed hundreds of el stops because I WAS NOT PAYING ATTENTION. I’d pick up a new administrative job every few days, at places like KPMG Peat Marwick, and Hyatt Hotels, and took a “night job” at Express. Lisa and I moved with a university friend to a Lincoln Park walk-up and I had a bed again. I placed the Zenith on the bedside table four feet from my face, just because I could, and my room was six feet by six feet. After three years of feeling trapped in a West Coast city I couldn’t relate to with its palm trees and too-brightness and lying boyfriends, I once again was home, with absolutely anything a possibility. Even parallel parking, which I mastered like an urban dweller.
If you’d have told me then that I’d leave less than three years later, and for good that time, I would have crushed you with my formidable Zenith…
TO BE CONTINUED. (Because parallel parking and el protocol make for fascinating stories?)
I’m going to the edge with my Chicago stories. Looking back, nothing consequential happened, but my time there was a turning point nevertheless.