Words will keep us together

Fiction, poetry and musings by Gregory T. Janetka

City Stories: Chicago


The lakefront and skyline from the North Side

So many buttons.
Must push all of them…

In 1987, Chicago turned 150 years old. It citizens re-elected Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, to a second term, only to see him die in office in November. The Cubs finished in last place, the NFL went on strike and the city was deluged by the wettest month in its history.

In 1987, I turned five. Chicago meant the lakefront and museums, especially the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry. Museums meant exhibits, which meant buttons to push. Never mind what they did, they did something and I was going to push them all. (Museums also meant eating lunch on a tray, and if there is one certainty in this uncertain world it’s that food always tastes better on a tray when you‘re five).


Dropping Bob off at his home, I returned the rental van and made my way to the Blue Line Harlem L stop. Sitting on the train with a 12-pack of Goose Island 312 (courtesy of Bob and his lovely wife as a housewarming gift), I was grinning like a fool – seeing as how I wasn’t excreting any bodily fluids or asking for money, however, no one took any notice. I was on my way to move into my first apartment in the city of Chicago –  something I had dreamed of for years.

This is Oak Park…This is a blue line train to O’Hare…

Our home growing up was in the Western suburbs – aka “the Chicagoland area” – which was a good 30-40 minute drive to the city – or,  you know, up to eight hours if it was rush hour.  Burdened with raising my two sisters and myself, our parents often took us to museums downtown on weekends. As a child my first-hand knowledge of the city consisted of these establishments, the scenery that we drove by, and old stories from family members. Otherwise my early impressions came movies from such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Adventures in Babysitting and the TV shows Perfect Strangers and Family Matters. Oh, and WGN of course. The first celebrity crush I can remember having was on news anchor Allison Payne. She emceed the Jerry Lewis telethon every year and every year I tried to stay up late to watch her just being her fine self gathering pledges and announcing totals.

This is Pulaski… This is a blue line train to O‘Hare…

School field trips to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Art Institute, and other enchanting places firmly entrenched the city my heart, even if it was still only the glossy side displayed to tourists.
But then came music.
I will always be indebted to my sister who, at this critical adolescent stage of my life, introduced me to local punk rock bands such as Screeching Weasel and the Bollweevils, along with a then little known group called the Smashing Pumpkins. Here was the sound of the city – the real city – musicians making little to nothing playing shows in small clubs and basements that sometimes only a handful of people came to. From Benny Goodman, whose father worked in the stockyards, joining up with swing bands anytime he could when he was still a teenager, to Muddy Waters giving birth to the Chicago blues, and the Alkaline Trio getting their start playing in record shops and anywhere that would have them – Chicago has always been a sound, a beat, a rhythm that underlies everything that happens within it.

This is UIC-Halsted…This is a blue line train to O’Hare…

The Fireside bathroom as immortalized on the back of a Scared of Chaka/Traitors 7″

Punk rock shows at the Fireside Bowl at 2648 W. Fullerton were my introduction to this world. For five or six bucks you could see four, five or more bands (some of which even knew how to play their instruments) and miraculously be able to hold it in for hours instead of having to use the bathroom, which is on my list of the more unpleasant places I’ve been. It was, let us say a far cry from the neighborhood I grew up in, where our driveway that needed a moderate amount of work was enough to bring dirty looks and snide comments. Here, in this pit of sweaty strangers teaming with life, here is where I want to be. Soon I was introduced to the Clark & Belmont area on the Northside. Full of independent record shops, resale stores and places like The Alley (it didn’t used to always be like a giant Hot Topic, did it?), it blew my mind and I decided then and there that someday I would live in that neighborhood.

This is Jackson…Transfer to red, orange, pink and brown lines at Jackson…

In high school I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Graham as a teacher. He put passion into everything he did and tried all he could to teach his students the actual history of the nation, which was a far cry from the glossed over Americana I learned at Catholic school (I remember being in 8th grade and thinking Thomas Jefferson was a black man – sure, why not?) Mr. Graham let me tag along on a field trip for his Sociology class that highlighted hotspots in the city that most students at my school would’ve tried their hardest to avoid, such as Bubbly Creek, the area by what used to be the stockyards that still mysteriously bubbles to this day due to all of the discarded animal parts and chemicals; Cabrini Green, the area’s most infamous public housing project that began to be demolished soon after, and the place the Chicago Fire started. In every place we went you could feel the history of it. Standing most anywhere in the suburbs all I felt was indifference, plastic.

All that is left of the Stockyards

This is Chicago…This is a red line train to Howard…

I went off to college in Washington D.C. (another great city also worthy of an essay). Returning home for holidays and summer breaks I always found myself taking the BNSF Metra train downtown to go to shows, Cubs games, and, of course, to visit my best friend Wes at DePaul. Each stop along the way (which could be more than twenty if you’re unable to get an express) brings incrementally noticeable changes chronicling the movement from suburban to urban until finally the city skyline blossoms forth. It was always a moment I cherished because I knew that in a short while I would be once again walking the same streets that my ancestors did long ago. And while the sights may have changed (how wonderful to think of a time when everyone wore hats), the energy remained the same.

This is Belmont…This is a red line train to Howard…


Mario’s Italian Ice on Taylor Street.

My arms, sore from moving everything earlier in the day, hung heavy under the case of beer as I made my way to my apartment at 432 W. Belmont. Walking toward the lake the air grew slightly cooler and the breeze picked up. I took the service elevator to my place on the sixth floor. The beer was warm, but satisfying. I sat on the radiator and looked out the window at the pristine view of the fire escape on the next building. Pigeons flew in between. The studio was small, but it was all I needed. To paraphrase Thoreau, a  bigger  house is just a bigger prison. With everything surrounding me, why stay in? Why create any more reasons to stay in then were necessary? I open another beer and laughed to myself.

“Hello, Chicago. It’s nice to finally be here. Cheers.”

The next day I walked the streets, searching out the local grocery stores and feeling the vibrant neighborhood known as Lakeview. I walked over to Halsted and treated myself to a vegan milkshake at the Chicago Diner, finally feeling at home. Little did I know it would soon be over. Six weeks later life intervened and I broke my lease. My father had cancer and I knew I had to go to Florida.

At least we still get WGN down here. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training a couple of days ago and I’m callin’ it here and now – Chicago Cubs World Series champs in 2012. Hey Chicago, what’d you say? The Cubs are gonna win today…

– February 2012

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