Some now-forgotten special occasion, or maybe just Sunday brunch, has brought my family to this chilly restaurant parking lot near the highway that separates the city from Lake Erie. We’re saying a long goodbye, trying not to shiver in the breeze coming off the lake while the cars rush by in the distance. I notice a jazz club at the other end of the parking lot. Gooseneck sconce lights blankly crane their open faces to a marquee that reads “JAZZ CLUB” in a space-age looking typeface. It looks out of place, just a little too clean for the slowly gentrifying working-class neighborhood. Its style is bebop, but in a post-modern way. It’s a reflection of a reflection of mid-century cool plopped unceremoniously across the street from two-story, vinyl-sided duplexes. While my parents and my sisters finish their discussion, I imagine what the club must have looked like last night, just a few hours ago.
Outside, smokers lean against the red brick wall, chatting while lit dramatically by the marquee lights overhead. Distant sounds of laughter, music, and clinking glasses drift past the bouncer at the door. Inside, dim red light permeates the space while a trio on a low stage entertains the small crowd. The soloist, a saxophone player, is really ripping into it, playing an intricate, virtuosic riff. Sweat is soaking into his dark button-up dress shirt from the intensity of his playing and from the stage lights. He’s wearing blue-tinted lenses in his oval-shaped glasses and a trilby is resting non-nonchalantly on his head.
Wow, that’s one cool cat, the audience thinks to themselves as the trio crescendos. They think it desperately, trying to feel cool and have fun on their night out. And he is, in a way. He’s studied and practiced for years to be able to play licks this hot. The trio is tight and the music is good.
But a trilby is too narrow for pretty much anyone’s head, especially the head of a middle-aged American man who hasn’t realized yet that he’s become wide. The shirt is ill-fitting, stretched in some places but baggy and formless in other places. I imagine the man’s small hat getting smaller, revealing a comb-over, while the glasses shrink, too, from strange but kind of “hepcat” cool, to too-small late-90s frames, and continuing until they are tiny, ineffectual points in front of his eyes. As the hat and glasses shrink, the music in my head fades away until all that is left of the scene is a sweaty middle-aged man blowing hot air into a microphone.
There’s a new bar across the street from this woman’s apartment, not even a year old, that is already my favorite bar in town. It’s a little pricey, but the cocktails are delicious and pretentious. It’s just my style. Second-hand rugs break up the smooth concrete floor between shaggy velvet chairs, floral-print couches, and wicker furniture. Italian and Japanese films are projected on the wall. The bar itself feels yanked from a 1950s Tiki bar, and the vintage seltzer pump and crystal whiskey decanters on display add to the lounge-y vibe. Behind the bar, the head bartender brews custom bitters in-house and will gladly describe the subtle differences between the half-dozen dropper bottles currently in rotation. The atmosphere is nearly unbearably cool and it already feels like home to me. Then again, I’ve been there four times and the bartenders don’t know who I am, so how homey can it really be? My love for this place is aspirational.
The woman sleeping next to me is also new. We met at a Halloween party, then we met again at the climbing gym and began spending lots of time together. She is graceful and exuberant, while I feel lumbering and sullen. I jump into the relationship as if it’s a pair of well-worn jeans, but this woman barely knows me. Earlier in the night we drank beer on the balcony and talked about how much we hate our jobs, but only she actually has a plan to leave. She asked me what I really want to do, what’s keeping me from doing something more meaningful, why can’t I leave this job I hate. I don’t have an answer to any of these questions and I feel strange that I can’t articulate why. I want to be joyful and have plans and goals like this woman but I don’t have any of that, I just feel sad and confused. My love for this woman is aspirational, but I refuse to acknowledge it.
I don’t know as I pull up the covers against the fall chill that three weeks later she will break up with me during a camping trip. I don’t know as I eventually drift into sleep that I won’t consciously realize it’s happened until we’re driving home the next day. I don’t know in that quiet moment that two weeks after our breakup I will feel foolish that I didn’t see it coming. I don’t know that, years later, I will come to recognize that if I was a better artist, our 3-week relationship could be a rich vein to mine for heartbreak and poetic contrasts. I don’t know that instead I will hold it at arm’s length, preferring the mysterious outline it takes on at a distance. But I do know in that moment lying next to a woman I barely know, that if I never look too closely, never pull back the curtain and peek inside our relationship, then I’ll never have to see how naive I was about it all.
I never see the inside of that bar again, either. In fact, I forget about it completely until years later and by then it’s too late - I’ve moved on.
I’m drunk – really drunk – and walking north in my favorite city in the world. I’m not sure where I’m going because my phone is dying and because, despite it being the city where I feel most at home, I don’t know Chicago very well. Also: I’m really drunk. If I had known the city better, I would certainly be getting drunker at a cool bar with the pretty, talkative woman I met at a concert earlier that weekend. Ten minutes ago we kissed underneath the tracks and I let her get on a train back to her Airbnb. Now I’m on my way to meet up with my friends.
Downtown Chicago, like most midwestern cities’ downtowns after 8 pm or 10 pm, is a ghost town of empty office buildings and parking lots. I’m the only pedestrian on the street, walking past closed coffee shops and restaurants while the city hums around me and gently guides me as I stumble toward my destination. In this moment, I am both drunkenly happy and very lonely.
This hotel is a former warehouse surrounded by other former – now gentrified – warehouses. Each building has more architectural character than I have seen since my last visit to Chicago. There is culture and history plastered willy-nilly throughout the city. There is an art-deco Walgreens on Canal Street. Century-old streetcars rumble past palm trees in front of a pastel French colonial building. The French Quarter brims with over-priced artisan shops and bars and cafés and restaurants. And the Big Easy’s reputation as a musical city is on display nearly every night: Big Freedia, Tank and the Bangas, Water Seed, and a nameless brass band of spirited high schoolers are highlights.
But all the texture of the city feels like a veneer kept up to appease the tourists like me who throw 20-dollar bills at overly salty gumbo and novelty-size carry-out cocktails. The empty convention center looms nearby, stretching for what feels like a mile and blocking us from banks of the Mississippi. Every local I engage in conversation is both defeated by my presence and eager to please. It’s a sentiment that lurks behind every interaction in the hospitality and customer service industries, but it feels more naked here. Maybe it’s the slow tourist week of a family-oriented holiday that makes it easier to see how hollow the city is. It has been hollowed out by the need to attract money from visitors while the spark at its core has become weak against the unending onslaught of capitalism.
In my last few hours in the city, I get scammed out of $20 by a fast talking old man on the riverfront. It jolts me out of my relaxed vacation mindset and I become sour with anger until I’m distracted by travel. By the time I return to work on Monday, I’ve forgiven him. After all, we’re both just doing what we need to make a dollar.
It’s my last days in the city. I’ve arrived early for a doctor’s appointment so I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of a building I’ve never noticed before, despite my frequent visits to this highway exit. This exit is a place of healing and hearing for me.
My therapist’s office (a left turn instead of right) is nearby. In that office I have talked about my panic attacks and my more mundane anxieties for the last 8 months, and I have only cried three times. I often drove back to the office loudly playing music as a way to unwind the stress of revealing myself during these appointments. Other times I would drive in silence trying numbly to process my emotions or to commit my therapist’s words to memory. I will have my last appointment next week and within 3 months I will feel like I’ve forgotten all the advice she gave me, but I also haven’t had a panic attack since.
I look through the landscaped ferns across 5 lanes of busy traffic at the shopping center with the used music store where I spent many of my paychecks. Later this week, I will sell back the equipment that I’ve outgrown or can’t take with me back to this store for a fraction of what I paid for it. I can’t help but notice the symmetry of the store where I bought the guitars and amplifiers to play too loudly in sweaty basements being across the street from the office where I will be treated for minor hearing loss.
Fortunately, my hearing is not permanently damaged, I just have some swelling from a lingering sinus infection, and the ENT who is about my age cleans my ear canals and tells me I have nothing to worry about. During the drive home, reveling in the music that is once again clearly audible, I think about my dad, now about twice my age, getting fitted for hearing aids the month before. Are my hearing years already half gone?