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I Was Back Home

(Photo: A skyline I can live with. Credit: Looper.)

You really can’t go home again. Not that I was jonesing to, with all the recent fuss I’ve made about preferring these Lake Michigan shores to Gotham’s piece of the Atlantic seaboard, where I’m from. But a few days away from Chicago earlier this month, spent in New York, really drove the point home.

I figured the successful conclusion of the (for me and many others) life-changing 7 Days @ Minimum Wage campaign was a good time to take a break from Hogtown. After almost four years away from NYC with only one visit back, I decided to take a chance and a cheap airfare to see whether the town that I walked away from in early 2003 looked any different through eyes much tempered by time and distance.

I headed to the hills of Essex County, New Jersey, just west of Newark. I know, I know, but I went to visit with my Portuguese friend, Jose (remember, folks, in Portuguese that’s “Joe-ZAY”, not “Hoe-SAY”), and his partner, Anthony. Last year, they fled Gotham, themselves, to set up shop halfway up a mountain in Maplewood, half an hour’s commuter-train ride from Manhattan.

You know I couldn’t blame them.

For the four days I was there, it was nice to be almost home. The happiness of being with old friends goes without saying. Nor was I surprised when, barely 15 minutes after arriving, Jose handed me the phone to chat with his parents, who were calling from Portugal, in my beloved (and quickly kick-started) European Portuguese. Or when we started to eat our way through Portuguese restaurants and bakeries in Newark’s Ironbound. In fact, of the four days, three of them were spent contentedly in suburban New Jersey.

It’s the one day in Manhattan that said it all. I had forgotten. Clear forgotten. The swarms of people, the narrowness of the streets, the brusqueness of the attitude. The abject, deeply entrenched fear of garlic and spicy food.

The soggy pizza.

The machine-gun-armed police squads, guarding a City Hall that citizens no longer have access to. The x-ray machines and metal detectors to pass through in order to visit the otherwise stupendous (if overpriced) new Top of the Rock Rockefeller Center observation deck.

The lack of being greeted with “hello” when you walk into a store. The lack of “please” and “thank you”. The hurrying, always hurrying, to get somewhere, faster than everyone else, regardless of whether you have something urgent to do when you actually arrive.

The hills, everywhere the rolling topography (for a four-year flatlander, Manhattan seemed mountainous to me).

And the organizationally shameful, comprehensively etched-the-fuck-up, impossible-to-see-through-anymore (get it?) windows of NYC Transit’s subway trains.

Bright spot? Seeing Adam and Vicki, the two transcendent New Yorkers whom Devyn and I showed around town last summer. They’re wonderful people–and Adam now with a great walk-to-work job (congrats on that!)–who spent an awesome evening with Jose and me in a comfy Greek taverna in TriBeCa.

I told Adam I could move back someday. Even for the above, I wasn’t lying. New York is still the center of the world for Devyn. And, unexpectedly, I found I wasn’t running from it anymore, either. Four years away and I was finally able to see my hometown for what it was. That’s big, ponderous, wonderful, maddening, stress-inducing, and altogether a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Of course, my answer to that urban ultimatum was, eventually, to run like hell. And I was lucky enough to find a really welcoming place to run to. Still, I finally found out I really do miss Gotham, dearly. With enough money, or a good-enough gig, I could return. Obviously there’s very much-appreciated amity there for Devyn and me. I won’t say no.


I did lie about one thing. It wasn’t the day in Manhattan that said it all for me. It was the flight back.

Specifically, the descent, during which my eyes were glued to the ground. I watched the wide and endless Midwestern grid of small towns and farms spread flat below, broken eventually by the comforting, massive sweep of the inland sea of Lake Michigan, and, finally, the appearance of the only skyline I’ve known for four years.

I settled back in my seat and smiled. I pulled that skyline around me like a warm blanket. I knew one thing for certain.

I was back home.

Categories: Backstory Best Of Chicago Carless LIFE

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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11 replies

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  3. Flying back home into Chicago always reminds Rebecca and me of a line (“Out of the farmlands into the grid”) from a Liz Phair song from Exile in Guyville:


    I was flying into Chicago at night
    Watching the lake turn the sky into blue-green smoke
    The sun was setting to the left of the plane
    And the cabin was filled with an unearthly glow
    In 27-D I was behind the wing
    Watching landscape roll out
    Like credits on a screen
    The earth looked like it was lit from within
    Like a poorly assembled electrical ball as we moved
    Out of the farmlands into the grid
    The plan of the city was all that you saw
    And all of these people sitting totally still
    As the ground raced beneath them thirty thousand feet down

    It took an hour, maybe a day
    But once I really listened, the noise
    Just went away

    And I was pretending that I was in a Galaxie 500 video
    The stewardess came back and checked on my drink
    In the last strings of sunlight, a Bridgette Bardot
    There’s a hat on my headphones
    Along with those eyes that you get
    When your circumstance is movie size

    It took an hour, maybe a day
    But once I really listened, the noise
    Just went away

    It took an hour, maybe a day
    But once I really listened, the noise
    Just went away

  4. Yeah, those hills in Manhattan will kill you. Last time I was there I could barely climb them because they were so steep. 😉

    Good post…you feel the same way about Chicago as I feel about San Francisco. You found something that worked for you, as did I. Chicago is a cool place…half my family is from there, and I have a gay cousin living here who just moved from Chicago, but plans to return someday. While I love Manhattan, I don’t know if I could live there (definitely Brooklyn or Hoboken or Weehawken, however). You’re right about the brusqueness of people, even if they’re not necessarily rude. You just have to accept it for what it is.

    Anyway, enough out of me. Thanks for posting that cool picture of the skyline. One of your loyal readers lives in one of the buildings in the photo.

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