When the maple leaves start to turn orange and drop to the wet ground when the rains turn cold, I always think of my favorite city, Chicago. The perfume of wet, freshly fallen maple leaves takes me back to the mid-80s, when I spent all my weekends in Chicago to escape the quirky college I attended in my least favorite town, Kankakee.My best friend lived on the South Side and she married a guy from housing projects on the Near North Side. She dropped out of college when she got pregnant and moved in with her in-laws. I was a farm girl and ate up all that urban grit. The knife fights, the make-out sessions with my friend's brother-in-law in the bedroom upstairs with the radio turn low, the showers with no water pressure, the pick-up basketball games, the gigantic blocks of WIC cheese, the problem of not being able to get a job because even your address wasn't good enough. My friends' joy of living, the passion for trying to make a decent life, a safe life, and their intense loyalty to a city that challenged and nurtured them was unlike anything I had known in anyone in the flat corn country where I grew up.Back in those college days, we prowled the waterfront parks at night, haunted the cheapest diners, maybe went roller-skating or out for pizza at Gino's East when one of us got paid. As the lake crusted over with ice and the need for me to study and my friends to make money, we moved on and lost touch.
My life brought me to Chicago in an October 20 years later for one of the city's cursed marathons. I enjoyed the city even when I had money to go to restaurants, stay at hotels in the Loop downtown, and to take an architecture tour to gawk at the first skyscrapers ever built and the new ones being built. Chicago was like me! (Or at least I like to think so.) Chicago had succeeded just as I had. It felt like we reached a comfortable, prosperous middle age at the same time. The Millennium Park expresses for me the city's joy about being prosperous and talented and, let's face it, fun. That fountain with the faces that spit waterfalls? Who couldn't love that? The Bean, the highly polished stainless steel mass, reflects the entire skyline or your own face depending on where you stand. And let's not forget the night Obama won when thousands gathered in hope that Chicago's mojo would rub off on the world.
With all the attention focused on Chicago in the past year, I started a novel based on my experience. Thinking of my friends made me long to try to make contact yet again and, once again, I search on Facebook. This time - about 20,000 words in, I found them!
We met again this year after twenty years and more apart. We spent time together as soon as I could fly to O'Hare and we spent the day sailing Lake Michigan in their sailboat on a glorious summer day. The years slipped away and the joy returns when we talked of how much we meant to each other and how often we thought of each other and I try to stay only a little jealous that they never left Chicago at all. I was delighted they fulfilled their dreams, they have prospered and that my book could yet have a happy ending!