Monday, July 6, 2009

I am a Bad Chicagoan — CMB Post

This was originally posted on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

I've lived in Chicago or its immediate surrounds since I graduated from college, more than 20 years ago. Chicago is, by far, the best big city in the world (with no apologies to the Big Apple). We have a vibrant arts community, from richly endowed museums, to wonderful public art to a whole panoply of street artists. The city is clean, welcoming and accessible by public transportation. And, we're nice.

Chicago proffers a steady flow of activities, from pricey season tickets for the Lyric or the Cubs, to the graciously free beaches, parks and gardens of our unsullied, unparalleled lake front. The architecture alone stimulates peace, wonder and lively debate (hate the spaceship on top of Soldier Field; the Sears Tower will always be the Sears Tower; and there's still no consensus, at least in my family, as to whether Trump belongs here). We have celebrations every 10 minutes and the melodrama of Chicago politics provides daily (pardon the pun) entertainment.

Even though we live in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, I consider us a part of the City of Big Shoulders, more like the sleeve than one of the collar counties. I admit I've lost some of my urban edge since drifting north. It takes me a while to pick up the rhythms of both foot and car traffic when I venture downtown, but the muscle memory kicks in pretty quickly. I love taking the Metra — it's fast and efficient, a sophisticated mode of transportation. I love taking the El — it's young and alive, a little gritty, a little sweaty, a little slower, but you get to see the city from the inside out. I love the museums and concerts, the restaurants and street scenes. And though I'm happy with our chosen community, I'm occasionally rueful that I was too practical (or too chicken) to raise my family right in the city.

Here comes the confession:

I find myself a little afraid of the city these days. It started when my twins were in kindergarten and a classmate of theirs was shot in a drive-by while visiting his grandmother on the south side. I had never been afraid of the city before, and I know that shootings happen everywhere, but the story of this little boy (who thankfully survived) really shook me up.

Then, last year, we were sitting on the lawn of the Museum of Science and Industry, waiting for the fabulous laser light show that celebrated the museum's 75th anniversary. It was a festive occasion, with hot dog and ice cream vendors hawking their wares as our family sprawled across a blanket, waiting for the skies to darken. At one point, I heard my husband say to some passing children: "Hey, kids be careful. Watch where you're stepping." It was a gentle admonition, said without rancor. He simply did not want them to step on him or one of us. Suddenly, their dad turned around and kicked my husband with the toe of his boot — hard! — in the arm. Had my husband's arm not been there, the boot would have landed right in his kidney. As it was, he sported a bruise the size of a small pancake for weeks. My youngest son was hysterical and begged to go home, but we stayed and enjoyed the show. The guy, whose dinner had obviously been 80 proof, did apologize at his wife's insistence.

It's these huge public gatherings that truly terrify me. One of Chicago's most venerated traditions is the Taste of Chicago, held annually the week prior to and through the Fourth of July weekend. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hate The Taste. It's crowded, it's expensive and it's invariably too hot. Years ago, the last time I went, we were standing amid the crowd when there was a sudden surge, like the seiches that are sometimes found in Lake Michigan. People pressed in on me from all sides. I lost my husband's hand. I couldn't move. I could barely breathe. All I could think about was that there are a lot better ways to die than being crushed by a mob. I've never been back.

This year, The Taste ran from June 26 through July 5. On the morning of the 4th, my kids woke up and asked if we could go. I made up several lame excuses: it's too late to go now; the fireworks were yesterday; it looks like it might rain. The truth is, I really didn't want to go, and I really didn't want to have to worry about keeping track of four kids in that crowd. I feel like a wuss, like I'm depriving them of a vital Chicago experience, something that is their birthright. But I won and we didn't go. If that makes me a bad Chicagoan, so be it.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't avoiding crowds (other than her crowded family), she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

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