Real summer air came down over the course of about a single afternoon and evening a few weeks ago, and now it's worked its way in. Humid and densely nourishing if a little over-rich, heavy with the scent of lilacs and lawnmower fumes. It's just past the time of year when I'd normally be staring down my collection of flattened boxes and refusing to clean or put anything away since I'll just have to clean it all and pack it all by the end of the month.
I'm staying put for once, not that I've been immune to the flirtations of the For Rent signs. But this weather makes me think of the real work of moving -- after the giddy thrill of selecting the new, empty apartment and before the comfort of having burrowed one's way into the neighborhood. The work of being unsettled, trying to build new patterns of living and hoping that they aren't the wrong ones.
I feel like I've written incessantly about my first few months in the city, but that isn't exactly true. It's mostly just that my antennae were turned up as high as they could go; I seemed to feel everything three or four times over. (And it's true that I did narrate much of it over the phone, long calls to California that were the sole venue for a relationship for a while.) Later I transferred much of the mood of that time into an ambitious work of fiction I'm not ready to say I'll never finish. But it's still not done with me. In beginning to write this here, I realize that it will be a multipart affair; a density of delicate threads occupied those short seasons.
I would have been ready to take the first apartment I looked at in Chicago. My mother and her urbanophobic boyfriend were driving me around getting lost and hating everything while I became increasingly belligerent in the sincere hope that they'd kick me out of the car and drive away. The first place was at the corner of North and Kedzie and probably really was a worse apartment than the one I ended up with: small, dingy, with matted gray carpet on the floor and a bathrobed older woman wandering the linoleum corridor outside. $525 with heat, however; fair enough. The landlord seemed nice; my family hated it. As we drove north and east into Lakeview my mom was relieved by the increasing number of restaurants and coffee shops where, she noted, it'd be easier for me to find work.
She had a point. The place on Ashland had several dismaying features, but it was technically just within the officially desirable neighborhood of Lakeview, and close to two trains. So I could ignore the fact that the tub, in lieu of a showerhead, had a sprayer attached to the faucet; that something in the rental agent's demeanor suggested that the place had been sitting vacant for many months; that the '70s-era stove was not hooked up to the wall. It was a lot of space for a studio and for my barely-existent collection of furnishings -- good windows, a whole separate kitchen with space for a table, walk-in closet standing between it and the bathroom. I knew almost nothing about renting apartments and was a little surprised and annoyed that the landlords wouldn't let me move in that very day. It would have been so easy: all my things from college were packed into and strapped on top of the car (including the newish, shiny orange bike I'd bought myself, whose naive cable lock would be neatly clipped the first night I moved in).
So we all went home to Grand Rapids three hours away and packed it all up again the next weekend. My mother and grandmother somehow found some empty corners of the car to stuff with household necessities. "They have dish soap in Chicago, you know," I grumbled in embarrassment.
I suppose I had an idea about making it on my own, starting from scratch. As if some silverware and cleaning supplies would corrupt that vision. Everyone -- and not just my family but also the man at the bank who set up my new account and the parade of tradesmen who would pass through my apartment trying to make it livable -- was already extremely dismayed that I was staking my claim in a town where I had no job and no prospects, with only two or three acquaintances, a liberal arts degree from a tiny anachronism of a college, and $3,000 of summer-job money to my name.
It took three anxious, humid weeks to find a full-time job. I did manage to get taken on by a temp agency right away. They sent me on a handful of $10/hour jobs across the city, the first being a convention where my task was to sit at a table and request that French doctors sign in as they entered the conference hall. The French doctors fell into two camps: those who resented my presence deeply and those who were delighted by the terrible French I served up to them. (All had horrible handwriting, which we later were tasked with decoding into names to be typed into a spreadsheet; many of the words we ended up with clearly could not have been the names of actual French people, but no one we asked seemed to care whether the spreadsheet had any particular connection with reality.) The caustic Frenchwoman in charge of the temps clearly sympathized with the former camp; she'd spent a lot of time fussing with our appearance (I'd bought new clothes for the job, which I still own and still dislike) and nearly sent another girl home for wearing what were essentially fancy sneakers.
"It is not that you must wear heels to look nice!" she spat. "Look at her! Those are flats! Still appropriate!" The heels of my shoes were not flat, just covered by my too-long pants, but I took in the extremely mild praise anyway, feeling that I'd passed a test while shrugging sympathetically at the sneakered girl.
I have mostly not been very good at the various low-wage jobs I've taken, such that I can still recall nearly every tidbit of praise I've received while doing them. At the movie theater I was appalled and flattered and then appalled at being flattered when the manager who'd hired me confided to a small group of us that she "only hired attractive people." ("What about Ashton?" "I didn't hire Ashton.") There and at a couple of my restaurant jobs I served the occasional customer who caught me in a rare moment of efficiency and said, "Boy, you're really good at what you do." Part of me yearned to let them know that this was false -- yes, in the obvious way that I was actually an cringing klutz 90% of the time, but more than that I wanted to say, resoundingly: "This is not 'what I do.'"
When I finally got a full-time job it was at a Persian restaurant about two miles away, and when I finally lied that I'd gotten another, better job in order to quit as quickly and neatly as possible, the manager, Saad, said he was not surprised because, in his words: "You are very great person." I was surprised and incredibly touched by this. It was true that he'd been one of the nicest people I'd worked with there -- sad-eyed, seeming a little too smart and refined for the work he had to do, a man who insisted on trying to fix the watch whose back I'd removed and been unable to replace before very gamely admitting it couldn't be done -- but still: I had been a terrible waitress. I'd dropped a full glass of wine onto a man's chest and then desperately, idiotically offered to bring soda water to help shrink the ocean of purple soaking his shirt; I'd sent an entire tray of heavy, expensive lamb dinners crashing to the floor and then, when the replacement order came out, slipped in precisely the same spot and done it all over again; I'd brought customers dishes they had no intention of ordering through cultural-linguistic misunderstandings.
Saad seemed to understand that this was not "what I did." And though, as my boss, he certainly had the right to disapprove of me because of it, instead he accepted my chaotic presence in the restaurant and liked me well enough anyhow. He believed in my fabricated future.
This was valuable to me because "what I did" was very unclear at the time. I went long stretches between in-person contact with anyone who knew anything about the kind of person I was and the kind of goals I had. You have to make small talk with a lot of people when you first move somewhere: repairmen, utility workers, landlords. In response to their reasonable questions about what I was doing with my life, I had nothing to say. I was just here, taking up space in Chicago. Even after I got the waitressing job, I couldn't quite say: "I'm a waitress." It wasn't a career. "I wait tables," I'd tell them flatly, daring them to press onward. And I vacillated between being comfortable moving through the world as a cipher and aching for someone to intuit what it was I really stood for.
Maybe that's part of what made my first months in Chicago feel so hyperreal -- that no one around me knew who I was. I was the only one in charge of perpetuating that entity; I couldn't pawn off parts of the task on the job I had and the routines I'd established and the friends I interacted with. There was no shorthand yet for processing my day-to-day existence, that series of constant collisions with a place that didn't know I'd become a part of it.
This is much of the work of travel, too, I suspect. Such work is exhausting, but exciting -- all that room for reinvention. I'd do it the same way again.