It is October in Chicago and somewhere in the Susquehanna River a salmon is preparing to die. It has spent the last few years in perpetual transit, wandering the yawning expanse of the Atlantic and its arctic abyssal plains, upstream through currents and wave crests and darkness of unimaginable depth. It has seen the moon through glasslike sea surfaces, swam through low shoals and survived three near-attacks by blue herons off the coast of Maine, only returning now to its youth waters. It is old and full of life-forms, small sons soon to be spawned in the shallows. The river refrains: return, return.
The Chicago poet Nelson Algren said a lot of things about his city, my favorite among those his allegation that Chicago “is an October sort of city, even in the spring.”
On the front cover of his hundred-page ode, he sits with a cigar tucked between his folded fingers. Owlish face, wire-framed glasses that wouldn’t put him too far from resembling the manicured artists who now inhabit his old, hard neighborhood sixty years later. The book itself is worn, binding crumpled from when I dropped it on its spine on the Brown Line train platform. Chicago, City on the Make.
I brought it to Princeton at the beginning of the year in the hopes that when I felt homesick for Chicago I could at least have a script, open the book and remember taking the train trips that took twice as long as driving that I took anyways because I was afraid of driving but told my parents I cared more about the environmental impact which is half true even though to anyone else I complain about the waits on the platforms and the rush hours where all the seats on the Brown Line are taken, so if you’re transferring from the Red Line at Fullerton you’re already screwed, better to just sit tight on the Red Line and resurface at Belmont, although the Brown Line shows the city better in all its startling steel, the sun softly setting gold across the sooty window of the train and as it shudders around North and Clybourne, emerging in new gentrified plastic from where The Projects once gripped the city at its ventricles. (You can see the entire skyline all silver, glinting in the distance of the train that passes too quickly headed north, on the slow El train, the train where if you sit down long enough you will hear someone speaking in another language, watch young mothers with red-streaked hair bottle-feed silent infants in their laps, watch two men with bottles stuffed into the pockets of their overcoats yell out crossword puzzle answers across the aisle, watch as one man seven down: drunk! and leering teeters over to you and leans his legs across yours, asks for a five letter word for bedlam!)
Before I came to Princeton I imagined missing it, this contact—jammed and desperate and anxious and waiting and work-logged and laden with bags and gardenias and groceries and headphones and carbon and heat—train lines leading like arteries from the pulsing, circuital Loop through the pastel lung tissue of suburban express routes (purple line to Evanston, orange line to Midway, Yellow lines to Skokie so rare my friend Sam said we should make wishes on them), the whole city, breathing. On these trains it feels very possible to fall in love through collision, millions of particles colliding in condensed, steel spaces. Before I left and before I will return for good I knew and know I would miss and will miss Chicago despite what it isn’t. A city without violence and poverty, a city without 516 homicides in one year, 11,886 gun-related crimes that didn’t end in a homicide; a city segmented in segregated sections, where only the train routes in the pretty parts get fixed. But like Nelson Algren, I will love it anyways; “Once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
I pictured myself quickly tiring of Princeton, annoyed with the gravel roads and calm trees and the absence of frenzy. Instead, Algren’s book rests at the top of a wobbly column of books I have not opened yet. 1937 Wilson College was only the first “home” I moved myself into only to leave the empty suitcases out in the middle of my closet ready to be repacked. But now it has become Home, I think. Opening my window blinds to reveal four birds clustered in the tree outside, sipping morning tea. Slowly losing all my campus maps. Chicago, now only a place to come back.
Magnetoception: How scientists explain the salmon phenomenon, what provokes salmon to return to the same gravel natal beds in which they were born. Biological, this odyssey, they spin their fins until they arrive again at the beginning. My parents request the same. They have paid for my small, private high school and Ivy League education, have permitted me to leave their guidance and their kitchen counters and their city—our city—at least for the short term. They only require Chicago—that when I settle, with husband&children&stableincome it will be near them. Chicago, so they (unlike their own parents, perished and remarried and scattered like grain in the suburbs of Detroit) can pick up my children from school and know them through more than intermittently. A city is not so much to ask.
I don’t think it’s still my home, not anymore. (Nelson Algren would have hated Princeton. I’m not the same person I left behind.) I miss Chicago now like I know my grandfather misses the Poland he knew, a longing for a place that no longer exists, never the same sort of home as I left it. But I know I will return to this jet-propelled old-fashioned town, swim back to Lake Michigan and will wait long enough to let all the saltwater out. (I wonder if moving back to Chicago will eliminate the time I ever spent away. A neat bookmark for a four-year tryst.)
I have not dreamed of Chicago yet, but when I do I will dream through estuaries, swim through the upper reaches of adulthood, skin slipping into slick scales. I will dream myself into the gravel bed of my natal river, will scoop up sandsmooth stones and hold them in my palms. I will tip my head back and stare at the jagged tooth edge of the skyline, bend my legs over the cement edge of my rooftop. I will imagine water filling the crevices between sidewalk and building tops, filling the gaps like bowls and pouring into the alleyways. The tops of the dream waves are cool. I will expire and open my palms, watch all of the rocks fall out.