The weather in Chicago has been beautiful the last week – for a day or two I was lamenting that I had not packed more short sleeves, and the last several days have been cool and clear. Nothing lasts forever, though, and we are expecting to see a little bit of snow soon. At least I packed for that.
Staying in a different part of town this time, a little further away than I have been in the past. I have appreciated the pleasant weather on the half-hour walk down to school, but I suspect the snow will send me scurrying for the L tomorrow morning.
I am in love with this place. It is so perfectly imperfect, a kaleidoscope of improbable quirks that put together are so real and vivid.
I love the spiderweb of cracks in the wall and the distinctly sloping windowsill and the carved rosettes in the woodwork around the window, a window that opens into a sort of light well with all the other windows on this side of the building. I love the narrow, uneven stairs that wind up to our third-floor walk-up. I love the old brick buildings and the neon signs and the Greek-key motif molded into the sidewalks, ringing the gaps where the skinny trees are trying to grow.
The block is made of Greek restaurants and Greek cafes and a couple of bars. There is a Greek grocery across the street and an intriguing shop selling candles and incense and religious paraphernalia on the corner. Around the corner there’s a taco place and there must be at least three gyros shops within a block. The tobacconist a few doors down has a window full of colorful glass water pipes and I have been gleefully telling anyone who will listen that we are staying upstairs from the bong shop.
The tiny room I am sharing with a student colleague is in a hostel style guest house that I imagine to be a family business – upstairs from one of the Greek restaurants. The common room we use for breakfast looks like it’s probably a nightclub at other hours – there’s a wet bar set up (not available for breakfast) and a platform in the back corner that would make a fine stage – or an improvised chancel. The proprietor of the establishment is a sturdy man with salt and pepper hair, probably in his 50s. I have heard him speaking at least one language I can’t identify – Greek, perhaps? – in addition to Spanish. He runs the breakfast room with hospitable authority and clipped, rolling English that dispenses with the extra words. “You need shoes. Go.”
The housekeeping staff seem to be mostly Spanish-speaking women. They get started in the morning after most of the guests have gone. I don’t understand enough Spanish to follow the conversations I overhear, but they were laughing at something in the stairwell yesterday. Whatever it was, it was hilarious. I don’t need to understand to appreciate their joy.
The guests are mostly young adults, and they seem to come from everywhere. I hear all the languages at breakfast: German and Japanese and one of the Slavic languages, in the last week, as well as Spanish and English. I love the coming and the going, the snippets of overheard stories, the occasional conversations, the people-watching.
These are the things I appreciate about staying in hostels. There is so much color, so much vibrancy, so much life. There is no way to drink it all in.
I find that I am sometimes very self-conscious about being white and middle-aged and middle-class when I am in these environments. I don’t want to mess it all up by being in the middle of it. But here I am, the observer changing the observed by the act of observation and being changed reciprocally thereby.
I love the city, at least some of it some of the time. It hums, it pulses, it draws me out of myself and into the magnificent human stew of which I am only a small part.
One more week of class here, then back home to shoveling snow and writing papers and making art and finding my place in the world, and seeing what happens next.