It’s Chicago and I’m meeting Pam in a few hours. This place where I’m having coffee, facing the 1600 block of Milwaukee Avenue, didn’t exist when I lived on the 1600 block of Damen, just a drunk stumble away, ever so briefly one winter, in a 3 room apartment over what I remember as storage and studio for the only other tenants, a couple of married “artists” who I saw maybe three times at the top af the perilously steep stairs during that cold, centrifugal winter.
Also, though it’s a cliche I’ll point it out anyway – not one person in this bright and well appointed cafe existed that winter. Not the red head with his carefully coiffured chin and peachy skin, who looks like my ex-husband. Not the tatooed girl who brightly took my order and gently disputed with the oldest person here – a barista of at least 30 – about whether I wanted my heavy cream on top of the espresso or on the bottom of the cup.
At that time – which was 1983 just in case you doubt my reckoning of birthdays and the antique geography of Chicago – I didn’t know there was anything but Chicago. Each block and bus stop was a self that lived in me as embodied as my gait, my appetite, my clammy sweat on the green leather bench seats of elevated train cars that I swear were launched straight out of a time machine to hurtle us around and around a dangerous fun-house track between office windows and apartment blocks until our bones shook back into some pre-historic order.
I lacked the imagination to dream of anything really, really different. But she didn’t.
And not only lacked her imagination, but lacked her courage. And really I think the courage comes first, like a fierce friend who says, there is more to you than this.
I have tried really hard not to cling to the self and the city that used to be me. In that, we were almost perfectly calibrated opposites as well. She wore the self she believed in like, at the very least, a balding, bespoke mink coat, rubbed to the skin but still better than that ghastly thing you’re wearing.
And, to come back where we started, everything’s changed now anyway, whether I trot out my bona fides or not. We listen to Talking Heads and Grateful Dead in the same over-amplified mix and no one understands how wrong that is, except a few people I don’t have to explain it to. I don’t know whether I’m here today or not. But I actually think she is. She would understand this dream of casual, carefully understated affluence. She’d definitely want to visit the custom perfume boutique next door, and show off her taste. And I really, really think I should do that, too.
I remember her every day, dear. The body of her dream is as close as our fingers, aa tender as wings, and breathing fully on the sky over Milwaukee Avenue.