–article by TAYLOR SCHEIBE
I like to think my first thought upon walking down Michigan Avenue for the first time was something magical and stirring but in all reality I probably thought to myself, ‘It smells like shit up here.' Still, even the aroma of poop drifting up from the grated street gutters could not cloud the glimmering city skyline reflected in my star-filled eyes. Here, the sidewalks are runways, the closet-size apartments are five-star hotels, and the overpriced foods fuel our hungry souls.
But Chicago was a long time coming—18 years to be exact. About 45 minutes south of St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, the town of Waterloo lies completely surrounded by cornfields. I never was a proud Waterlooian; I was too busy wishing to be from somewhere more interesting. Then on the day before I left for college, a storm came up from the south. The massive purple clouds rolled into Waterloo like angry cotton candy blobs as I watched from inside my Chrysler Sebring convertible like a sitting duck in the Walmart parking lot, my trunk filled with last minute dorm supplies.
I’m not sure why I decided to follow that storm out into the bluffs—I knew what a waste of gas it was but I was all sentimental and felt like I needed to do something dramatic. I turned west onto HH road and listened for the crunch as my wheels veered onto the gravel back roads down the side of the bluffs. About twenty yards before the bottom I could see over the flood plains, over miles and miles of flat farmland along the banks of the Mississippi as I drove straight into the stomach of the rainstorm pelting down like golf balls on my windshield. I drove over the train tracks and past every landmark I knew until the road didn’t go straight anymore, and I pulled off onto the shoulder, a isolated vehicle on a bare back road.
I shoved an old 90’s CD into the stereo, stepped out onto the open road in jean shorts and a tank top and I spun around in circles like a five year old in a water park, except with lightening and lion clouds roaring at me to get off the damn road, until the rain had drenched me through and through and even my bones were shivering. As I looked through the fountain of rain over the fields, I felt at home for the first time in a long time. My friends and I drove those back roads hundreds of times since we had acquired our licenses but I don’t think I ever really saw the bluffs until then.
I had spent 18 years of my life groaning about how boring Waterloo was and then on the night before I left I finally saw it had been remarkable all along. If anyone else had been there they wouldn’t have seen me cry because of all the rainwater. Then I reminded myself that leaving Waterloo was all I ever wanted and that standing out in the rain like a crybaby was a childish thing to do. So I swallowed my nostalgia, got back in the car, woke up early the next morning as planned, and drove north on Illinois Route 3 until Waterloo was just a fragment of memory lost in a city of new dreams.
In so many ways this city has changed me and in so many ways I’m still the same. I think in some ways Chicago has made me bitter. Years ago if someone bumped into me on the street, I would have smiled politely and apologized, even if it wasn’t my fault. Now I fight the urge to yell, “watch it!” as I roll my eyes and grit my teeth. I’m not as compassionate to the homeless as I should be; after passing the same beggars almost every day for the past two years, I find myself holding my wallet a little closer to my chest. I walk straight and focused as I try to ignore the people that yell at me to fight for gay rights and save the sea lions. I’m not even sure why—I love gay people and I love sea lions. This city has made me skeptical and short-tempered. But it has also made me tougher and given me motivation. I’m not that same wide-eyed girl who walked through downtown in her jeans and cowgirl boots. I traded my boots for a pair of nude pumps, black tights and a gigantic coat to face the Chicago cold.
But every so often the cowgirl boot-wearing country girl in me surfaces and I’ll find myself taking the scenic route home just so I can walk by the ‘once-a-block’ trees, or waving to a total stranger because it’s part of my muscle memory to do so. Sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, the smell of the train, the never-ending symphony of sirens and car horns and the near-death experiences with taxi drivers make me crane my neck to the south. I think back to my hometown, back to the trees and the open fields and I’m backroading through the bluffs along the Mississippi River, back where the sun sets over the trees instead of skyscrapers and I had a car instead of a CTA card.