My Kind of Town

“People are so phony and lazy there,” one friend of mine put it when I told him a decade ago that I was planning to make the leap from the capital of the world to the capital of the Midwest. “They’re too polite, and they’re never at their desks when you call them after 5.” Then he went in for the kill. “Plus…it’s flyover territory!” No native New Yorker worth their salt ever dreams that one day they’ll willingly call fly-over territory home.

It definitely came as a shock to me. New Yorkers are bred to consider the way things are in New York as the baseline normal for the way things should be on earth. Long lines, short tempers. Immense work stress, miniscule apartments. An unbearable cost of living. An excruciating lack of politeness.

And then in early 2003, I moved to Chicago, a city whose greatest selling point is, perhaps, not being New York. I’ve tried many times on this blog to explain why I made the move. Essentially, a combination of growing post-9/11 angst and an at-the-time not fully realized need, simply, to finish growing up, forced me out of my classic Gotham fear that New Yorkers just aren’t fit to live anywhere else. (As if not being able to get a bagel at 3 a.m. is a somehow fatal affliction.)

As I have often told, I made six trips to Chicago to visit friends from January through March, 2003. The facts at the time were me draining my finances flying round-trip every two weeks–once not even letting a friend know I was coming to stay with him until I called him from the ‘L’–like  moth to some inexplicable urban flame. Finally, after six trips, I spent a weekend in California in my (formerly and once again) beloved Disneyland, deciding whether to actually leave New York and move.

I clearly remember standing on the Grizzly River Run overlook bridge in California Adventure and hearing these words from old friend and fabulous D.C. communications expert Sarah Massey come through my cell phone: “New York will always be there if you want to go back; but if you don’t go now you’ll never know.”

So the rest of my money went on flying a friend to NYC to help drive whatever I didn’t think I could part with to Chicago, and that was that. Followed by two years of trying to rebuild a professional career, lots of economic and emotional hardship, not a little amount of fear, new friends, new love, a year of running around like a 12-year-old falling in love with an amazing city, a year of headaches dealing with differences from New York that always seemed to be hiding behind the similarities.

You know, followed by life. And it has been amazing. I have no regrets about spending the past ten years in Chicago. I cannot imagine returning to New York. As long ago as 2007 I turned down a job opportunity to stay here. And I’m far from the person who left Gotham in the first place. Being back in New York just reminds me of how much of living here I’d never be able to have there. Not the least of which is a populace that acts so amiable towards each other that during my initial trips here I had the uncanny sense that this entire region was putting me on.

Bluntly, when you’re living in New York, you can’t seriously imagine a major city with the amazing marriage of brash urbanity and human kindness that we take for granted every day here on the shores of Lake Michigan. New Yorkers love to argue with that. Wouldn’t you if you had to live in New York?

I first thought about my 10-year anniversary post as a retrospective. Then I realized the retrospective is this blog. For most of those 10 years (almost 8, so far), I have chronicled my journey here. My growing, my learning, my happy, my sad, my assness, my grace, and everything in between. So if you have an interest in seeing where I’ve been in my Chicago life, I humbly invite you to browse around my blog archives.

All I can say is I never expected to become a repeat visitor. But something about this place just seemed to whisper to me. In hindsight, I hardly feel that I chose this place. In a fundamental way that I can’t explain, it is as if Chicago chose me. Some sort of soundless urban whisper. Some frequency that something inside of me was hardwired to pick up on. In old-school Chicago terms, an offer I just couldn’t refuse.

I learned to be an adult here. I became 40 feeling like I was 30 here. I became a Jew here–and how many people have the pleasure of explaining to people that they’re a New York native but a Chicago Jew?

I truly believe in their deeply embedded zeal to use New York as the best-practices litmus test for the world (ahem–as I used to do), New Yorkers are incapable of getting a place like Chicago. I will whole-heartedly allow the gangbusters nature of Chicago politeness, and our zeal to be at home during at-home hours. No problem calling us at work after 5. We assure you, Gotham, we’ll check our voicemail in the morning. In a city so expensive that conversations not based around work are almost unheard of, I could see that seeming like laziness. In a city like ours, I’d call that balance. As life should be.

As for flyover territory–I’ll happily make a quilt out of that and wrap myself in it on cold winter nights. If not for winter, we wouldn’t be flyover territory, and weather-fearing New Yorkers would no longer be able to say, “If it wasn’t for the winter I’d live there in a heartbeat.” Which they tend to say every time they visit this place for the first time. And then, as New York depopulated for points west, imagine what would happen to our housing costs?

My first morning in Chicago as a permanent resident, I awoke with a pungent sense of gratitude for the blessing of being able to be here. Ten years later, I still wake up with the same feeling. It’s not that I couldn’t live anywhere else.

But after ten years in Chicago, I assure you, nowhere else could be home.

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