Chicago Amber

I lived in a studio apartment on the South Side of Chicago the first year after high school. It was a few minutes ride into the Loop (essentially downtown Chicago). I found the public bus to be unreliable so I would often walk the couple miles to my Michigan Avenue university. On the breaks in between classes long enough to leave campus but too short to go all the way home, I would nap in Millennium Park. My head would lay on my backpack, my hands lightly folded on my chest. I would set an alarm on my phone and hit REM sleep. It never occurred to me that anything undesirable could have happened to me. I was in public. I was safe. 

Fast forward a lot of years. Let’s say 20. I am coming into the city for the first time on my own. I had been back on a handful of occasions with others for one thing or another, but never by myself. My husband gifted me a night away from my life as a suburban housewife and mother to return to a place where I once felt invincible. I didn’t want to hit the nightlife. I could maybe take in some of the museums. I mostly wanted to sit in the noise, read, and write.  My house is so loud during the day, but it’s a different kind of loud. There’s fighting over who gets to go first, declarations that dinner is disgusting, outdoor level laughter and running, and lots of requests for “Mommy. Mama. Mom.” At night, my house is quiet. A little too quiet. I can hear my baby snoring through the monitor. I can hear the sliding door opening when my husband lets the dog out in the early mornings. I can hear the crackling of the pavement under my neighbor’s truck wheels when he gets home late. People are busy living their lives but I am not witness to it. I get to witness life in the city. Buildings stretch high into the sky like mountains. They are filled with people living their lives. Oh the things they could be doing! My imagination runs wild. 

My phone map  took me into the city in a way I had never come in before. There must have been some insane traffic to reroute me through a northern neighborhood and then along the lake. I had always looked forward to the hill on interstate 90 where the Chicago skyline appears like a scroll feature in a real life slideshow. My heart would get caught in my throat and I would think “Yeah, that’s it.” Give me the sewer that smells like BO, aggressive drivers, elaborate shop windows, and art around every corner. This back way of coming into the city offered a much less exciting introduction. The Hancock building and a few of its neighbors were all that I could really see. My “baby city” of Milwaukee (as I call it) appeared much bigger than what was offered here. It took me through the Magnificent Mile, the windows dressed to the nines. Then a turn onto Wacker Drive did it. I was engulfed in buildings, pedestrians hugged either side of the road, the Chicago River pushed its way through these man made mountains. My heart thrust into my throat and my eyes glistened. I was where I belonged. 

The hotel where I was staying had valet parking. I didn’t want to deal with having to lug my too many bags for one night anywhere in the city so I attempted to valet my car. The front of the hotel was a cluster of cars with what seemed like one attendant. The traffic surrounding the hotel did not care that anyone was trying to valet their car and held fast to true Chicago themed aggressiveness. I circled the plus sized city blocks four times at the end of a work day on a Friday. The valet situation did not change. 

I spied a parking garage a few blocks away and decided I would do what I said I would not. I lugged the too many bags for one night out onto the street after navigating six floors of parking garage. If you’ve never been to Chicago, know that it’s like most cities and is organized in a grid pattern, except around Wacker Drive, where I was. I drove into the garage on a street that did not offer a pedestrian exit. I exited on foot some where on some street. I glanced all around me trying to spot a familiar building, bags in hands and on my back. I’m sure I looked like a lost tourist on their first trip to any city ever. I felt the red fill my face. I didn’t know anyone around me. They didn’t know me. Still, I was embarrassed to be lost in a city I had once lived in and loved. Then my tourist status ignited the fear of being a target for robbery and I rushed in a direction I hoped would lead me to safety.

When I finally reached the hotel, my breath was heavy and I donned a sweat headband. Both agents at the front desk looked very annoyed that I required their services. Through their talking to each other more than to me and being addressed as “hon” more times than I can count, I was checked into my room. I joined two girls not yet the age of 20 on the elevator. They shared whispers and side-eyed me. The floor was littered with trash. The smell of weed clug to the walls. When I reached my room, I flicked the light on and dropped all my bags with relief that I had finally arrived.

As I sat on the edge of the bed, catching my breath, I could hear the breath of every other person that passed by my room. It was as if I was back at home, listening to my baby on the monitor. This place was complete with its own baby crying, kids running up and down, teenagers laughing, and a non-stop parade of doors opening and slamming closed. I heard the scratching of chairs in nearby rooms, the squeak of beds, the flushing of toilets. My husband had spent many adult contemporary song lengths on hold a week before to ensure that I would be in a safe area and have a tub in my room. I did have a tub. If I could bathe my ankles in it, I would have been surprised. A bubble started to form in my chest and move up my throat. As the bubble enlarged, my chest began to cave in on itself.  I heard the beep of my door unlocking and it slamming into the extra lock I had instinctually engaged after entering. Someone had a key to my room. As quickly as they opened it, they closed it. I froze. My chest shrank. The ball grew. Beep. Slam. The door opened again. 

“Yes?” I managed this time. 

“Oh – sorry.” was the intruder’s response. 

My breath mimicked how it felt after carrying too many bags on the way to check in. I had to make a decision. I could stay and hope that the person or people that opened my door twice just got the wrong room assigned to them by the completely disinterested hotel staff and that they weren’t savvy serial killers who were trying to test what I would do when they entered my room unwelcomed. I could book a room elsewhere but my husband had gone through so much to make sure I could have this special time to myself to relax and feel like a person again and not just a butt wiping, fight breaking upping, meals every day making, joy creating, love machine for my children. I could book something and not tell him and pretend I stayed in this accidental hellhole. I have this major problem though. I suck at lying. At one point I think I was good at it but I have not been for at least a decade. So I called my husband and tried to get him to calm me into accepting my flesh would not be worn on someone else’s face and that I wouldn’t be robbed while I was sleeping. His attempts were futile.

I found another hotel under the same parent company a few blocks down. I figured booking something owned by the same people could help me later down the line when I inevitably called to complain about the experience. I didn’t bother moving the car. I caught a cab to the new hotel. When I walked through the doors, the smell of spicy essential oils tickled my nose hairs. Yeah. I liked it. The agent checking people in was happy to be here. When it was quickly my turn, I explained that I booked online just minutes prior due to my unfortunate circumstance at another hotel under their umbrella. She was quick to apologize and started searching for a room that would more than make up for my experience. She also gave some advice on how to gain compensation for the blunder. I was given water and cookies, a run down on all the delicious options available to me, and a corner room with a soaking tub overlooking the Chicago River. As I approached the elevator, an impeccably dressed man held the door for me and helped me select my room using their high end elevator.

When I entered my room, I could have sworn I heard “Hallelujah!” rang out and bells chiming. What I couldn’t hear were other people in the hallway or in their rooms. The wall to wall windows of the corner suite let in the soft hum of the city ocean sounds. The hotel was near the El train. When it would come by, it mimicked a wave so closely that only the sporadic squealing of metal gave it away. 

The ball in my throat began to deflate. My breath was back to normal. My belly growled. I recalled the delicious details the front desk agent provided and placed an order from the rooftop restaurant. When I reached the 27th floor, the ambiance said “money.” I approached the young women standing at the hostess stand. I did not catch their immediate attention. I did not want to interrupt them by asking them to do their job. I stood close enough to assume I needed their assistance but far away enough to assume I was, yet again, lost. When they finally felt my presence, they fetched my order and handed me a bill. I had assumed it would be billed to my room so I was unprepared to pay there. I began rifling through my wannabe clutch (basically a cloth pencil case)  as though I was trying to put away my change and receipt after finishing a transaction at the grocery store with people lining up behind me waiting for me to get my life in order. I found business cards and parking stubs. I found tampons and chapstick. I even found some cash but in the moment couldn’t do fast enough math to determine if it was enough to include an appropriate tip. But I could not locate any of my cards for payment.  One of the young girls then said “You can just bill it to your room.” As soon as the period hit her lips, I found my credit card. I had taken all that time to find it – I was going to use it. I said I wanted to pay it now and handed over my card. It lay on the counter long enough for them to have exchanges with other people, who looked like they belonged there. I stood off to the side, trying to make myself smaller. I was in a black cardigan over a burgundy  top, dark jeans, and ankle boots. I could have just fetched my order in my pajamas, but this was my attempt at dressing “nice.”

I used my wannabe clutch as intended, holding it to my body as tight as possible. I held my breath waiting for them to bring back my card. I had given it to them, right? Where had it gone? A couple approached the doorway to leave. The woman was blonde, her lips filled, high heels high, dress low cut and hugging her slim 50-something frame. The man was tall, hair abundant although he was similar in age (maybe he was older), he wore a sport jacket over a crisp white shirt, unbuttoned more than usual. They stumbled towards me and giggled that I wasn’t letting them leave. They were obviously intoxicated. I laughed a nervous laugh and stepped aside. 

My card was returned to me after an eternity. I did math as quickly as I could and headed towards the elevators. (I’m still not sure my math was correct). A floor to ceiling window was next to the bank of elevators whose location indicators showed me they were working hard. I stared out the window at the range of buildings lit up in white, blue, red, flashing, and not flashing. When doors to an elevator opened, two young women glanced at me a moment before exiting and greeted me. When I walked into the elevator after them, their eyes told me they thought I worked there. 

On the ride to the 9th floor, I was deciding if I was offended, saddened, disappointed, or content with being mistaken for the help. The women on the elevator had skin a dark olive tone. Normally, I am mistaken as the help by white people. I usually attribute it to racism. Although I’m sure that can’t be completely ruled out on every occurrence, I think it was my attire that threw them off. I obviously wasn’t there to partake in the services of this Chicago rooftop bar. One does not choose a cardigan for a place like this. I chose to take it as an observation. Since becoming a mother and staying home full time with my children, I have not found the time or interest to discover how to dress my new mom bod. I wear what’s comfortable. Style is rarely a consideration. And when it is, what I consider stylish is not flattering on me. 

After satisfying the grumbles from my belly, I was able to focus on why I was here in the first place. I was to relax. I was to read and write. I was to not be needed by anyone. For anything. So I did. I read. I wrote. I was not needed. 

I chose to venture outside for breakfast. Convenience of in room dining is great and all but $20 for a breakfast sandwich was difficult to swallow. So I didn’t. I found a nearby coffee shop on the map and headed out. The city is quiet in the morning. The only sound is the rushing waves of the El overhead. I encountered a nun hurrying on starting her day, two men in the same white hat standing too far apart to be together, a man walking with a backpack (maybe a student), and a handful of joggers. It’s quite the contrast to the sidewalks crowded with people under the lights of the night. 

There were several moments the night before where I felt defeated. Not only was this trip intended to be relaxing and it started off as anything but, I couldn’t navigate the city I could easily traverse without a map less than a lifetime ago. And I was scared. My goal as my feet hit the pavement was to interact with as few people as possible and get to the safety of a hotel room so I could look out but not be accessible to what was out there. I scanned the intentions of everyone who made eye contact. I had packed my bags according to what I was okay with being stolen. If I was robbed, I would throw the duffle bag at them. They could have my underwear. I was sure to pack my computer and journals in the most difficult bag to remove from my person. Why was this even a consideration? Twenty years ago, I was sleeping in the park with all of my belongings not even attached to my person. What changed? Was it the isolation of the Covid-19 Pandemic? Was it becoming a mother? So much had changed in my life since I was in the city alone. It wasn’t the city’s fault I no longer felt like I belonged.

Since becoming a mother, I have yet to find collective activities that light up my heart. I would love to travel but thinking of traveling with my young children generates that pesky ball in my throat. I have three of them, and it’s difficult to find someone to watch all three so my husband and I can get away alone together. I do still enjoy a pastime from when I first met my husband. He would drive me around the neighborhoods that said “money” so I could look in their windows. I would imagine the lives of those who lived there. I wondered if money made life better. Or if the things were all just a mask. I would get uneasy when I saw actual people in the windows, but would instantly be calmed by their smiles and collective joy. 

Sitting in the new hotel, in my corner suite, I could see directly into the windows of the across hotel. Most people were just watching tv. Some were talking at a table in the window. There was one corner room that got the light perfectly, it glowed like amber. Every so often, I could see little people running back and forth, jumping on the bed, collectively partaking in joy. I missed my children. I missed my husband. 

I’m no longer invincible. I’m hyper aware of my surroundings. I forget things. I’m quick to judge. Anxiety lives inside me and is easily tempted. I am not the woman I was when I lived minutes South of the Loop. I will admit that I mourned her regularly but this trip has shown me to appreciate her instead. Her fearlessness and direction was what I needed to be then. She is not who I need now. I adore the crashing waves of the El but I’ll take it as a side to “Mommy. Mama. Mom.” My children would love Chicago. The city doesn’t have to be just mine. I can’t wait to see what we find when I get lost with them.

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