Friday, May 09, 2008

Not My Kind of Town

Just got back from Chicago; spent 4 days there covering cases. It's been a long time since I can remember being so relieved to get out of a town...not so much the being home part (though that is very nice indeed), but just to be OUT of a town.

As my faithful readers know, I am from a smallish town. We call ourselves a city, but to me the word "city" connotes a large metropolis, and Collegeville is not a metropolis by any bending of the imagination! Chicago is definitely a city by my personal definition, but I'm calling it a town because Frank Sinatra did...and who's gonna argue with Frank? Not me!

While I currently reside in a town of roughly 50,000, I was raised in a town of about 14,000. I don't think I'd ever want to live in such a tiny town again...definitely not that town because it has succumbed, over the years, to drugs and all the associated problems.

Oh, and because it is an intelligence-sucking vortex. When I go to any store or restaurant in that town I feel my IQ threatening to run off a cliff with the rest of the mental lemmings (sorry Mom and Dad; no offense to you or your friends - you have all managed to remain above it... Kudos!).

Conversely, I would never ever want to live in a large town like Chicago. In my youth (recent, of course ;)) I used to think it was fun to visit the big cities. Centers of industry, entertainment, and opulence. Loci of unspeakable violence and rampant poverty. The clamorous contrast! The promise of raucous spectacle!! Exploration. Adventure. Risk.

In the wisdom and clarity of responsible adulthood, the adventure is now unappealing. The risk is now unacceptable because I have two little semi-helpless, damn cute humans relying on me to come home. And a husband who is secretly terrified that one day I won't. Aside from the idea of rendering my family sans mother/wife, I truly don't like the big-town atmosphere. And it's not just the smog.

As I arrived in Chicago I felt this... aura. It is still hard to describe. It was like a giant, oppressive, intangible weight; a stifling negativity with an undercurrent of urgent restlessness. It was completely alien to me, an atmosphere I wasn't sure I could safely breathe.

I arrived at night and my first impression was of the absence of dark. Even from miles away I could tell I was approaching the city by the growing glow on the horizon. As I entered the city proper, my eyes goggled at the abundance of garish signage and harsh lighting. There is no natural darkness in any large city. It occurs to me that there must be many people in current existence who have never been outside on a moonless night and known what it is to feel simultaneous trepidation and wonder at being a tiny human in a vast universe. For us small-towners, it is a common opportunity; but its familiarity doesn't lessen its sacredness.

Sorry, folks; your big-city Imax planetarium just doesn't cut it.

I was instantly on guard, compulsively scanning my surroundings, forcing myself to be hyper-aware: the traffic, the aimlessly wandering bands of shady-looking adolescents. I scavenged through my mental files under "Personal Safety," desperately trying to remember every scam and associated safety tip I ever learned:

Don't stop if a cop tries to pull you over. It could be a rapist or murderer. Put on your hazard lights, call 911 and ask if there is a trooper in the area, then proceed to a safe place.

If someone tries to carjack you, don't let them in the car, WHATEVER YOU DO. Slam on the gas and honk your horn. Run them over if you have to.

If someone rear-ends you, don't get out of the car. Lock your doors and call 911. Leave yourself room to pull away in your car if you feel threatened.

And so on, and so on. And that's just the "stuff to remember" while in the car!! Mentally and emotionally exhausting: it never let up for 4 days.

Traffic? I won't even go there. I've never had to "commute" in my life. The furthest I've ever lived from my workplace is 15 minutes. 15 minutes in Collegeville? 8 miles. Across town. In traffic.

15 minutes in Chicago? About 4 blocks. If you're lucky. Road rage is very real. Courtesy is regarded as weakness and is to be ridiculed or even punished. No wonder people carry guns in their cars. I got the "Illinois Wave" more than once, and I consider myself lucky that I didn't get worse! I'd chalk it up to my out-of-state plates, but my new Fleet vehicle has no plates.

I met some nice people at the hospital accounts I visited. Out and about, however: totally different story. Perpetual pissed-off-ed-ness is the dominant state of mind. I'm not a cranky person; I tried to make eye contact, offer a sincere "thank you" or "have a great day." The overwhelming response was knitted brows and a suspicious look; I swear I once heard a mumbled, "What. Everrr..." as I walked away. Apparently it's not acceptable to be courteous out of your car, either.

Now I know people from Chicago. The people I know, I like. TellYaWhat: I like them even more now! Anyone who can live there and maintain not only sanity but a positive and personable attitude? Good for You!! Hurrah!! Bravo!!

As I left Chicago, I remember the exact moment I felt normal again. As the Interstate I was on peeled from six, to four, to two lanes, and I was finally on a route with only one lifted. It was as if I had been holding my breath for four days...and I finally exhaled. The rugged gray landscape surrendered to rolling green plains and freshly turned fields of rich, black soil. I opened my sunroof to let in the unsullied spring air, the occasional fragrances of crabapple blossoms and damp earth filtering in. My shoulders relaxed. My brain uncurled from its fetal position. I laid my head back against the headrest, and set the cruise control.

There's nothing like a big town to make you appreciate the small town life.


Merry Monteleone said...

Oy, I feel the pressing need to apologize... I have to say, though, if you ever are coming back this way - let me know, I can give you a real tour if time will allow it and I swear to you, people here are generally not nasty like that, I think maybe you just had really bad luck... not that I haven't met jag offs here, but most people who've come for visits can't help but comment how great it is that such a big city has such a friendly small town attitude...

I know what you mean, though, being comfortable in a small town. I'm the same way about the city. I can visit the country or beautiful places with great natural scenery, but I'm at home with concrete under my feet.

Thanks for the stop at my blog and the link love - I promise, most of us chicagoans are really pretty nice... if a bit crusty on occasion...

Mom In Scrubs said...

Thanks Merry! I will most likely be back, probably soon...if I have some free time I will get in touch!

I suppose home is where you're comfortable.

And I was on Cicero by Midway. My friend told me not to go out after dark....

Monnik said...

oh, that's too bad that your experience wasn't good. I love Chicago... But home for me is my tiny town of 320 people.

Merry Monteleone said...

Is that where you flew in or where you were staying? If you go up to archer ave. (which is right by midway, just a bit north, there's a restaurant on Cicero and Archer called Brandy's - I haven't been there in a long time, but it used to be a favorite and the same Greek family still owns it - Chris ran it, one of the nicest men you will ever meet.

Try them out - their egg lemon soup is to die for, and if it's a friday, they have this homemade macaroni and cheese that will add ten pounds just looking at it, but still... Oh, real food wise, they have great breakfasts (which they always serve) especially the skillets...

Archer Avenue itself is largely, or always was, the kind of party strip. Teenagers drive up and down to meet up with each other and twenty somethings do the same, aiming for the next place on their little party schedule or just hanging out... Overall, the neighborhood right there is predominantly Polish American, all the way west to Pulaski - of course they are not the only nationality still around there - we have a good deal of Mexican Americans and still some Italian Americans and a bit south you'll find a heck of a lot of South Side Irish...

You don't want to go north of Archer on Cicero, though, unless you know your destination - there are housing projects up that way before you get into the town of Cicero (which would likely scare you too) and the viaduct to get onto the expressway isn't known for its clean safe appeal... there I recommend rolled up windows and two car lengths away from the driver in front of you - and if someone taps on your window begging for money, and they will, ignore them - better if you look dead at them and tell them no through a closed window.

Merry Monteleone said...

Sorry, I said, "all the way west to Pulaski" - I meant East... west sends you toward the suburbs, which you might actually like better, now that I think of it... East goes toward downtown...

Aerin said...

HI - I came over from Ello's blog. I'm DYING to know where Collegeville is. I grew up in a college town about 2, 2 1/2 hours south of Chicago. Am I on the right track? :)

SUV MAMA said...


I'm so glad you are home, and in one piece.

Great writing, Mama. "brain uncurled from its fetal position" could only sound poetic coming fom you.

Tiff said...

I'm a small town girl myself, but I like living near this state's version of a big city.

Glad you're back home and hope you had a great Mother's Day! Did you do anything special?

Mom In Scrubs said...

Thanks everyone! I'm working on a Mother's Day post...but we were busy yesterday so it's not done.

Aerin - I don't really want to say, but it's not in Illinois. Are you referring to Champaign/Urbana?

BlueBella said...

Hey girl thanks for stopping by and for the linky love! Right back atcha:)
BTW did some reading on ya and you've got quite a way with words. And sounds like we've got a lot in common. Can't wait to get to know you more!

writtenwyrdd said...

I laughed at the comment about dropping IQ points. Small town life is very different from big city life, as I was forceably reminded when I left San Francisco for very rural Maine almost a decade ago.

And thank you for linking to my blog!