It is 1 degree Fahrenheit this Sunday morning. I’ve been here in Chicago a full week for a project. A west facing window at a close relative’s house, has an ice veneer over 90% of its surface. It is not even a month past the Midwinter mark and the ground is nearly permafrost. So, why then do I hear a voice saying “the world needs more Chicagos”? I spent some important, but young, years here growing up: most of elementary school through High School. I visited rarely for many years after, not again until my thirties-then about once each decade. It grew up and became a world class city. Rediscovering the city now as an older adult, exploring Ravenswood, Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park, on assignment interviewing social justice advocates for an audio project, I am exposed to cultures and points of view I wasn’t previously.
I’m returning to Denver in the early evening and happy to do so. Denver is a city that won my heart with wilderness just a wild hog’s hair away from the sprawling town; close family I love and, of course, a dog. On days almost as cold as this there is warm sunshine that cuts through the dry air and hits the crest of your head. Still, I’m moved to a deep affection for the city of Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow and Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago allows me glances of a patchwork of neighborhoods rich with persons from every family of humankind. It presents me with a morning when I can walk along a colossal grey lake that sometimes rages to third story offices, often devours beaches and always fascinates.
What compels this affection is of course the character of the city’s people. They interact with tough weather, struggle with change and growth, troublesome inequities and ceaseless revitilization, while retaining a legendary friendliness. Yes, the friendliness is real.
It is meeting Shaims (pronounced loosely “shay-emz”), my driver one day, a refugee from a Middle East country. He mails a check for some $600.00 to his daughter every month to help with room and board at a University downstate. At a stoplight in Rogers Park, he wrote his name with his finger in the air, in Arabic, so I could briefly see its ornamental beauty. He told me it means “sun.”
It’s Miriam and Heidi in a Northshore coffee shop, in their mid to late seventies, overheard speaking of Walt Whitman. The two are interrupted by me, apologetically. I’m eager to tell them, I’m from Denver– a city Whitman visited and loved. I share that he was impressed, then, by the smelters where workers shoveled out silver bricks. He even called Denver the “Queen City of the plains.” It was how they offered me a chair with no second thought, because I had time to kill, and they, like the blessed whole of citykind here, are friendly and “don’t bite.” I was invited to their book club. It was an invitation I had to decline but this did not prevent them from chiming: “Next time, then.”
It’s a scavenger potluck dinner of sorts with friends, where the guests bring ingredients to cook harvested from across the city and cabinets. Some of these prove surprisingly difficult to find in local markets. But all arrive, with all the produce and hospitable temperaments intact, despite the late-breaking snow and special side trips required at rush hour. Soon, there are steaming saucepans and the air is generous with the aroma of smoky spices.
It’s close family in the city, who like me wake too early, because each day is so precious you don’t want to miss a second of it, or, worse, fail to behold the cardinals drawn to the feeding platform in the yard with a bounty of raw peanuts. “Peanut Mountain” was poured there, before full day-break by The Philanthropist to the Birds of the Western Suburbs.
It is being a guest at a local church later on this Sunday for a service honoring Dr. King. The congregation is first met moving chairs from the main sanctuary to an unattached Fellowship Hall –where the newer heater can keep up with the now 5 degree day. This unlike the 130+ year-old building, wherein, today, you can see your breath. This is a Midwestern welcome: being forced to sit closer together in a smaller room. It is listening to congregant Sandy’s story. She, to the left in a folding chair, strikes up conversation immediately with this guest. I learn about her duties as a Census worker and she can tell whether or not I care. I do.
It’s not Wilder’s Our Town. But it is a town of towns, each often full of approachable people. I’m certain that the world-at-large needs more Chicagos. We need to look further than the reports that unfairly amplify the danger of living in the city. There has to be a balance struck between it being one of the “top 25 most dangerous cities in America,” and hands down, the friendliest. Because, with all the work it still has to do, it’s a place filled with the endlessly curious. These are folks not afraid of making eye contact with strangers. In fact, watch Chicagoans, they lead with their eyes as they enter a room, the train, or as they flood to the sidewalk. Like the woman responding to my question: “Am I on the right Union Station to Aurora line? Will it stop at Stone Ave?” Because, puzzingly, on the BNSF-Metra sometimes there are stop announcements, sometimes there are not. It was a “not” day. I was on the right train, by the way, as the woman in a nearby seat confirmed, adding: “Your stop is just three away.” Friendly. In other circumstances, maybe your driver’s eyes recognize you warmly in the rearview mirror. My name is Shaims. Let me embroider it in the air and share a small piece of the tapestry of my life.
Vincent Hostak is the creator/host of the podcast “Crossings-The Refugee Experience in America.” Look for a series of Chicago episodes coming in late January through February 2020, featuring topics of resettlement, the changes in public policy affecting admissions to the US, poetry and other writing from refugees and their sons and daughters, special programs for refugee girls, and how trauma and mental health services help integration of newcomers to America. More at: http://crossingsrefugees.home.blog/2020/01/10/coming-soon-refugees-finding-sweet-home-chicago-and-more-art/