If you go by the numbers alone, I am a Chicagoan, Arkansas born.
I left my home state about a month after my 18th birthday and moved to the Chicago area—Evanston to be exact—to attend Northwestern. After graduation, I stayed in Chicago nearly 15 years, bringing my total Chicago time to 18 years and 9 months, narrowly beating the 18 years and 1 month I spent in Arkansas.
Trouble is, you can’t go by the numbers alone. Your earliest years are longer than the ones that follow. That goes for how childhood feels as well as the shadow it casts over the rest of your life. The setting for those first discoveries and heartbreaks that make up your own personal origin story is bound to have the strongest formative impact, whether the hometown in question was a paradise lost or an inferno escaped.
So when people ask me where I’m from, Arkansas feels like the truest answer, and that’s what I say. If anybody ever asks me where I came out, came of age, and came into my own, I’ll say Chicago.
For my first apartment in the city proper, my roommate and I each had to pay $637.50 per month in rent. That amount did not seem especially low to me at the time. Considering it now, from the cramped confines of my overpriced Manhattan apartment, I’d like to say to my younger self what a character in Broadway’s The Inheritance exclaims when he learns that a friend in a rent-controlled 3-bedroom on the Upper West Side is only paying $575 per month: “FUCK YOU!”
That first apartment was on Addison between Damen and Western. The nearest noteworthy landmark is Lane Tech College Prep High School, which, as it happens, is where my husband went. Though not when I lived over there. I’m not a pederast.
After a couple years, I moved a little further north to a one-bedroom located near the corner of Irving Park and Leavitt. That’s where I committed my first acts of paid journalism, as a freelance contributor to the Chicago Reader. I hereby grant the city permission to put up a plaque.
Around the time I was considering renewing the lease, somebody broke in through the window of that apartment—it was on the ground floor—while I was at my Bartleby-esque office job in the Loop. The intruder stole a laptop and a souvenir Memphis lunchbox filled with loose change. Apparently, those were my only possessions of value.
The break-in persuaded me not to renew the lease or to continue living on the ground floor. I moved to the 13th story of a building in the Gold Coast, just north of downtown. That’s where I was living when I met Frank.
Two years later, we began cohabiting in a high-rise next to the lake, just north of Boystown. At night, I would stare into the illuminated condos of the neighboring buildings, where each window looked like a diorama displaying these mysterious, miniaturized lives all transpiring without knowledge of one another. I regret to report that I never saw any naked people.
After a year, we relocated to Uptown, a neighborhood that real estate agents had, by that point, been describing as “up-and-coming” for decades. What they meant was that some of Uptown’s grittiness was holding on in spite of gentrification efforts. I’m sure the gentrifiers eventually won. Don’t they always?
Frank and I owned the last place we inhabited in Chicago. It was a 2-bedroom unit on the second floor of a three-story, brown-brick building with big front windows overlooking a leafy street in Edgewater, up near Loyola University. The lake was within walking distance, and so was a divey gay bar. Life inside the apartment conformed to this definition of comfort from Tracy Letts’s play Superior Donuts:
It’s easy to underrate that now, but there’s nothing wrong with comfort, you know? You’re lying in a bed in the city of Chicago and you have your arms wrapped around a person who’s made the decision to move through the world with you. That may be comfort and not much more, but it may be love, too . . .
Looking back on it—and for some reason this is easier to see in retrospect—the most accurate thing to say about my time in Chicago, even more accurate than that bit about coming out and coming of age, is that I was happy there.