I was seventeen, fresh-faced and still in high school, when I last visited Chicago. I had come to explore Columbia College, its programs and facilities. Though I had visited the Windy City before, a year prior, actually, I was still intimidated by its cloud-fingering skyscrapers and the shadows that they cast. I did not understand, then, how one could make a life in a city so large. How could one find their place, a niche, a pattern of belonging and eagerness?

Now, at 25, I welcomed the change of scenery. We arrived after dark, cruising up Lakeshore just for the hell of it. It was a city, sure, one just a few hours north of my own. But it was ... different. You could smell the lake, taste the breeze, catch a glance of those still at work, late on a Friday night, in those tall, reflective beauties. There were people--walking, chatting, eating, standing, waiting, talking.

I could already sense the city's pulse. I felt its steady heart, beating up from under the sidewalks and into the air. Into the car. Into my hands, which I pressed against the passenger window. Pressed and hoped and ached for attachment. I looked up and out, at lights and buildings, and a smooth, dark lake. Thump thump. Thump thump. It was there, all right. Thump thump. It was there.

In Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Giulio goes on to explain, "in a mixture of English, Italian, and hand gestures, that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people's thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be--that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don't really belong there."

Rome's word, then, according to the novel, is SEX. The Vatican's is POWER. New York City's is ACHIEVE, which is "subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles," which is SUCCEED. I can tell you that CONVENIENCE is what defines Indianapolis. But Chicago? Chicago, now, I'm not so sure.

I asked Ty, who grew up there. Who drove us there. Who played tour guide and exuded a sense of familiar confidence. Evansville was where he lived, sure, but Chicago? Chicago was where he was from.

"Ty, if you could, what one word would you use to define Chicago?"

"Welcoming," he says after only a few moments of contemplation. "I've noticed more friendly people in Chicago than unfriendly. It's easy to strike up conversation. We're a talkative group. Even if it's small talk. Fewer pricks than in the East, fewer loners than in the West. A good mix." He continues, both ranting and raving. "Everyone kind of rallies behind the sentiment that what we lack in style, we make up for in substance. What we lack in size, we make up for in community. What we lack in trendiness, we make up for in unpretentious, Midwestern realness."

He pauses, but not for long. "Zoë summed up Chicago very well. It's like a series of potential romantic interests: New York is the most handsome, very charming, he says all the right things, but really he's just trying to get you into bed. L.A. will just try to fuck you on the first date. But Chicago is the one that would be good to you the rest of your life. A little homely, but faithful."


  1. Wow, Dawn, this post is wonderful! I so love how you describe the city and your arrival and what Ty said about Chicago.

    Really great post!

  2. You really master the storytelling skill, Dawn! As for Rome's and the Vatican's words... well, I think in some cases they could even be swapped!

  3. I would love to go to Chicago, someone I used to work with there lived there (and I think she's back actually) and every time she talked about it, I wanted to go more and more :)

  4. Wonderfully written as always!


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