Deanna Grows in Her Garden City
(Photo: Letting go of what you think you know about yourself can be the starting point for finding out what you’re truly made of.)
[NOTE: Although the timing of this entry is ironic given recent controversy involving Intelligentsia Coffee (tangentially) and Yours Truly (directly), this autobiographical piece was in the works for several months prior to its publication today.]
The following is a Chicagoans Project guest post from Deanna Myers, scribe of the blog, Mindless Meanderings. For the genesis of this project, please see here. To tell your story on CHICAGO CARLESS, email me at mike (at) chicagocarless (dot) com.
Once you’ve lived somewhere long enough, its landscape begins to change with you. Its landmarks–at one time foreign, empty, meaningless–begin to sprout hints of growth as you plant memories like seeds. Soon, a living breathing history of your time there begins to reveal itself.
In my three years as a Chicago resident, a veritable garden of stories and experiences has been planted here along the streets and corners. Places that, to others, may have meant something else completely or perhaps nothing at all as they passed them by.
In my first three months, the city seemed desolate, lonely. I lived in a swanky lil’ apartment provided by my cubicle-dwelling, high-paid fiancé. In it there lived a cat, a few vague ambitions, some expensive furniture, and a very unhappy little girl. I had no friends, or anyone with whom I had anything in common.
If I left the safety of my apartment at all, it was to brave the freezing January weather in order to make the trek to a Starbucks downtown at 4 o’clock in the morning. If you’ve never been on the Blue Line at 4 o’clock in the morning during a Chicago winter, let me assure you that it is not the kind of impression of our fair city that leaves a newcomer glistening with the naïve gleam of young ambition and high hopes.
My only refuge lay in hiding away in my apartment, my only friend my cat. My fiancé acted like a combination of master–lording over every single move I made, criticizing the manner in which it was done, and child needing constant care and attention. I endlessly slaved to please and subdue him, because he was all I thought I had in the world.
The city, itself, seemed an endless and vicious jungle which forced me to navigate through its myriad of cold, mean people who would stare at me on the train, throw trash on the street where I was walking, or make uncouth comments about me and my race. Eventually, though, the ugly words that were strewn at me like weapons began to hurt a little less. I learned to take advantage of others’ ignorance by fulfilling their expectations that I did not speak English. Most importantly, I learned how to pose my very own “do NOT fuck with me” expression and stature every city dweller must eventually perfect.
And I also bought pepper spray.
I’m not sure what it was that forced me to realize that things needed to change. I suppose that particular moment was arbitrary, though, since change occurred whether or not I can recall when. I’d heard about a high-end boutique coffee roaster on the Food Network. I knew it had to be good when I mentioned the name “Intelligentsia” and all my foodie friends back home swooned. Their barista had me at “microfoam.” I found out about a new store opening and stalked the soon-to-be manager endlessly until he agreed to interview me.
Then I decided to go back to school. I began double majoring in biology and theatre. I had a plan. I was going to save the world while speaking with perfect diction. Maybe even in verse.
When I look at these two seemingly simple choices, it occurs to me that there is so much that we take for granted. To many people, having the freedom even to make choices about a decent-paying job and a college education are luxuries. Things that not everyone has the opportunity to pursue. And my two seemingly small decisions in these areas together became the catalyst for the enormous change that was about to occur in my life.
First, there was the café culture into which I threw myself. That culture has a life of its own. It cultivates community, spurs discussion, and harbors its own little social groups. I think any city’s café culture is like a hidden gem. I’m convinced that cafés and those who dwell within are the driving forces of the cities where they’re located.
It’s in the cafés where artists, philosophers, the overeducated in general who are happy to disguise themselves as mere food service workers, and caffeine addicts hide behind finely crafted espresso machines and demitasse and plot, quietly and eloquently, to slowly take over the world. It was in my café where I was finally started meeting people who challenged me, who made me laugh genuinely and with unapologetic joy, who forced me to think, and from whom I sought respect rather than their mindless approval.
Then there was college. That’s where I saw people working productively toward their goals for the first time. It was strange to me to see people in my peer group actually working towards something, and enthusiastically, too. It changed my perspective, too. I threw myself into work and school whole-heartedly, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt passion for something.
The facts, however, that my attention was now diverted, that I was no longer terrified of leaving my house, and that there were people and elements of my life beyond anyone else’s ability to control, drove my fiancé absolutely mad. First, he tried adding things to the list of requirements I needed to fulfill in order to keep him happy, calling me “selfish” for pursuing my own goals. Then, he tried coaxing my attention back towards him with gifts. He even adopted two more cats to keep me company when I was home. Finally, he pretended to lose interest in me and attended to an unfulfilled ambition of his own by trying to shoot a short film.
When I offered to help, he jumped at the chance to have me to himself again for ten days, totally supervised and never out of his sight. That was all well and good until the realization struck me that he was paying for the film with credit cards in my name, taking full credit for the entire production, and falling terribly short of the skill set that an apt auteur should’ve had at his disposal.
After all was said and done, I was humiliated. I was left with the debt from the film yet there was no finished film to be seen, and one of our crew members sued us in a very public way over my fiancés lack of ability to pay his bills.
Eventually, the fighting that by now had become a ritual between us began to turn into periodic threats by one of us to leave. But I never did. I was too afraid to disappoint anyone, too afraid to hurt him, terrified that he was right when he said that no one else would ever give a shit about me once he was gone. And, let’s face it, in a sad way, I was comfortable.
My fiancé never walked out, either. After creating grand illusions about what real love was supposed to be and trying to force us both to live by his dysfunctional visions, he was too caught up in his self-created drama to notice neither one of us was happy to be there.
Finally, one day we both realized that it simply took too much energy to sustain the fiction that we still cared, and over an argument about pumpkins we dissolved a seven year relationship. To my absent surprise, he very quickly found another unlucky woman on whom to project his fantasies. Meanwhile, I discovered just as quickly that the world could be a very scary place for a suddenly single girl.
Unlike when I was with my former fiancé, now the dangers lay outside of my home, in all the places we’d been together. I could pass a stop sign and immediately remember the conversation we’d had while waiting to drive through the intersection. I would walk past the Madison street stairs of the Blue Line’s Washington station and recall what it was like to ride to work with him in the mornings. We’d always kiss there at the bottom of the stairs before parting for another workday while I’d sing to myself, “My baby takes the morning train…”
Everywhere I went in Chicago, every little thing we’d ever done as a couple in this city would constantly replay in my mind. The memories would sprout up like thorny, uninvited weeds underlaying every step I took. I’d have near breakdowns at street corners where he’d stopped once to tie his shoe. It was really quite ridiculous.
But somehow, slowly, I began to dig those memories up at the roots and replace them with seeds of my own choosing. I choose seeds of independence. Over time, they began to thrive in unexpected ways. With my fiancé receding into the back corners of my mind, Chicago’s familiarity became friendly again. I came to live once more in a place marked by my own story, my own history. A city I could rely on once more, full of vibrant colors and lush possibilities.
My memories began to reflect not those of a defeated little girl, but of a strong young woman. Yes, a woman who no longer had three cats (I really miss them), a 50-inch flat screen television, the façade of a perfect loft apartment with an elevator that opened (often unexpectedly) into the living room, the false security that someone was waiting at home for her, or aspirations of becoming a doctor who moonlighted as a famous Shakespearean actor. But also, a woman who had gained a sense of herself both artistically and literally, renewed her appreciation of her community, family, and friends, and discovered the art and beauty hidden within herself and the world she inhabited. All for the first time, ever.
As I walk through Chicago now, I pass new landmarks and pause to consider what fresh happiness has been cultivated there. I look around, thankful every single day for all of the wonderful things that my seeds of independence have sown. I am proud to call this city, this garden, mine, and I am even happier to know that I share it with millions of other gardeners who add to the beauty every day by living their lives true to themselves. No matter who tries to tell them not to.
Deanna Myers was raised in Rochester, Michigan. She moved to Chicago three years ago for love of a man (and then again, not), but when that didn’t pan out, she decided to remain for love of Chicago. She is a barista extraordinaire at Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Lakeview store, performer, writer, and choreographer, and spends her spare time writing her blog, Mindless Meanderings, and musing on how much better it is to be a single Windy Citizen than an engaged impending house frau. As if.