This past March marked fifteen years since The Loved One and I packed our bags and left Chicago in the rearview mirror. I’d spent 51 years of my life living within the city’s limits, the only exceptions being when I resided in a couple of suburbs for fewer than six months, total.
I grew up on the Northwest Side, just across North Avenue from suburban Oak Park but even so, the gulf between Oak Park and Chicago kids was deep. We all dressed differently, spoke differently, and even ate differently. The Oak Parkers loved Wonder Bread; we Chicagoans ate Gonnella or, in my particular case, my mother’s homemade bread (which embarrassed me mightily as the OP kids looked at my lunch sandwiches with ill-disguised puzzlement and revulsion).
Anyway, as soon as I was old enough, I moved deep into the city, first Lincoln Park, then Boys Town, Wrigleyville, Wicker Park, East Pilsen, and, at the end, Albany Park. I considered myself a Chicagoan through and through. I lived on pizza and Italian beef. I rode the el every day of my life. When I went on first dates, I took them to the top of the John Hancock Center, 95 stories above Michigan Avenue, for pre-dinner drinks at the Signature Room. And, natch, I lived and died with the Cubs. Mostly died.
I never dreamed I’d leave the place. Then The Loved One felt she might be more comfortable working in a smaller setting. She’d been toiling for a Michigan Avenue ad and marketing firm for a few years and had eventually become worn down by the insufferable pressure.
So, she scored a gig with a Louisville firm. It was smaller. There was less pressure. Her clients and colleagues less inclined to lean on her to happily slash the throats of…, well, anyone to get ahead. Me? I’d been freelance writing for 25 years by that time; I could continue to do so anywhere, armed with my cell phone and laptop. Louisville was as amenable as a workplace for me as Chicago (or so I thought). Love triumphed over urban loyalty.
It turned out, sadly, that almost immediately after we moved to the self-styled Gateway to the South, the world economy went bust. Not only that but I’d failed to take seriously enough the sea change in journalism and publishing that’d been brewing for a good 20 years already. Print newspapers and magazines were dying. The internet made it possible for everyone and his cat to write on bulletin boards, chat rooms, blogs, and social media. Fewer and fewer people were willing to pay a living wage to someone just to write words on paper when nine tenths of the nation’s population was doing it on their computer screens for free.
No matter. I loved the move. Even though I was about to leap from middle age to old man-ness I felt as though I were a kid again. Everything was fresh and new. I went from stultifying flatness to hilly beauty. Heck, mountains were mere hours away by car. And the people around me, to be sure, were different.
Barely a hundred miles out of Chicago, the day we drove our car and a loaded U-Haul down Interstate 65 toward Kentucky, we stopped at a tiny gas station/convenience store to fill up and score some road food. (I highly recommend Pringles for long drives — the rigid canister and the chips’ uniform hyperbolic paraboloid shape both lend themselves to noshing while attempting to keep a ton and a half of metal, rubber, and plastic in its lane at 79 mph.) Anyway, as we paid for our fuel and grub, the counter clerk asked us a question. It was, to be sure, uttered in a foreign language. “Huh?” I said.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Uh….” I turned to The Loved One and she shrugged. The woman, now alert to the fact that we were the foreigners, asked again, slowly and distinctly, “Y’all wanna sack with thay-at?”
Aha! I recognized a word or two. But why in heaven’s name would this woman ask us if we wanted a sack? Where we came from, a sack was some oversized, indestructible receptacle, usually burlap or at least heavy canvas, used for disposing of toxic or other disgusting substances or dead bodies. “A sack?” I said.
“Yay-ah,” she replied, pulling out a plastic bag.
“Oh, a bag,” I said. “Nah. No thanks.”
I’m sure she told her co-workers and her family, after we left, that strangers from some exotic land, Portugal or Chicago, had passed through.
We spent a couple of years in Louisville and then The Loved One grabbed at the opportunity to work for the Cook Group. I recall precisely when she told me the news.
The Loved One: “We’re moving to Bloomington.”
I had no idea where Bloomington was or even that it existed in the first place. I didn’t know it was the home of Indiana University. In fact, the only thing I knew about IU was its former basketball coach was one of the best in the history of the sport and a horse’s ass to boot. The town was 35 miles off the Interstate and as we drove west along SR 46 toward it, again in our car and a fully-packed U-Haul, we passed tumble-down shacks and spooky-looking mobile homes and stopped counting road kills because we’d run out of fingers and toes, I thought, “Where in the hell are we?”
It turns out this place is now home. It’s an anomaly, actually, a tiny island of blue in a red state that can be referred to as either the Mississippi or the Alabama of the North, depending on how antediluvian and regressive its legislature feels on any given day. Bloomington itself is so Democratic that Republicans more often than not don’t run for local office because, well, why bother when you’d be doing extremely well to garner vote totals in the double figures?
Not that Bloomington being monolithically Democratic makes the place any kind of liberal nirvana. State law in Indiana restricts county and city councils from doing much more, in terms of progressive politics, than issuing the occasional Black Lives Matter proclamation. I worked as a reporter for WFHB News for a few years, early on, and was struck by how Bloomington’s city council repeatedly issued stern letters calling for some outside state or country to cease and desist poisoning the planet or running roughshod over its citizenry. I imagined the governor, say, of Arkansas or the prime minister of Thailand tossing the letter in the wastebasket with nary a glance. But at least our hearts were in the right place.
Within my first six months here, I found my place at a table in Soma, the coffeehouse in the basement of an old mansion on Grant Street. There I met and formed tight friendships with professors, scientific researchers, engineers from the US Navy’s Crane facility, artists, lawyers, local politicians, guitarists, poets, entrepreneurs, restaurant servers, painters, and other oddballs. It came to me within months of my arrival that I’d found a real home for the first time in my life. I am, after all, nothing if not an oddball.