The Long Hello - A Decade In The City of Big Dreams

By Dana Jerman

Somewhere in the curious soup of actions that comprised the year 2007, after he finally graduated college and after lots of trips around the country trying to find the right place to be, my partner and I decided we would move to Chicago.

I suggested this place because I had never been here before. I really liked new things. I still do.

I wanted to live in a city again after a stint in Washington DC. It was a gamble that worked. At least for me…

On January 1, 2008 we arrived in Union Station groggy from the sleeper car, somewhere around 11am I think. The sky was grey and it was cold, and windy. Very shortly after arriving my partner and I started to make the joke “What’s that smell? Oh, it’s Chicago.” Chicago stank like burnt chocolate (Blommers Factory) and grimy salt, diesel engines and a sky choking on its own snow.

We had one friend here. A guy we went to college with back in western Pennsylvania. He helped hook us up with an apartment a co-worker was moving out of. First floor of a house on Winchester Avenue at 37th. Right across the street from McKinley Park.

We only had what we could travel with- a couple duffel bags. A little bit of get-on-your-feet money, but not much. I brought along a copy of Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm because I wanted Algren to be the first author I read here.

Our college friend showed us around a bit. It was night, velvet dark and clear, when I first saw Lake Shore Drive. I remember sitting in the back seat of his Jetta as we zoomed along, quiet and thoughtful as he and my beau chatted up front, feeling stunned by how tall and cosmopolitan everything seemed. After that I began to ride the train lines out to their ends and back to explore. I never stopped looking up.

We spent a lot of time maneuvering the neighborhood. Using the nearest laundromat blocks away. The library not as far as the laundromat. Hours and hours on nice days between the park(s) and the New Archview Diner. I wrote poems too:

Today is one month in Chicago-
dirty pretty and pretty dirty
like any city with millions where
I could lose count
of all the people I see everyday
amid drivers who are asshole
to the Nth power.
Where the downer of segregation
and imbalanced wealth and power
smells of rotting rubber chickens
burning lipstick condom candy
factory funk the pollution
of sex is all-seeing like a
Miles Davis record and my
south side neighborhood has
heard it more than once before.

In lieu of a barista gig, the only job in food service short of chef I’d never done, I started figure modeling in March of that year. I called around to schools and left my number and the work took off fairly immediately. I was able to save up quickly. We moved to Ravenswood, and then to Lincoln Square. My partner was having trouble finding a job, and when he did it wasn’t really what he wanted. He had a car at one point, and things seemed to come easily to him when he needed them, but he was still unsatisfied. So he left.

I thought I could follow him, but I was wrong. I had made friends and found industry. My heart was here now.

After a very lonely and disorienting summer away in 2009, wherein I acted as caretaker for the house and grounds of an old victorian in the processes of being remodeled, I returned in October and stayed with a friend in Summit, Illinois while I searched for an apartment on Craigslist. Eventually I found a great one in Buena Park on Clarendon Ave. Warm, cheap, close to a cafe and Boystown and the Red Line.

Time passed. I made art and saw art and did my thing. I rode my bike everywhere and worked and worked. Traveled far afield, then returned. I found a new lover and it didn’t last. I found another one and he didn’t work out either. 

For a complete change of scenery after a particularly nasty breakup, I moved to Logan Square with the help of a friend of a friend.

Then I hit the love jackpot. And this is why Chicago cannot be called Hell. I found true love. We got married and moved to Wicker Park.

No kids. Cats are pretty but gross. Who knows if we’ll ever get a dog. 

But happiness piled on happiness could never erase the kernel of a kind of profound gloom that is actually very important for me to never forget: 

The small Thai restaurant was in Lakeview off Halsted street. We didn’t know that then. We were just out looking for jobs and getting lost and my partner didn’t like it. It was a rainy afternoon. The kind where everyone else is at work or home napping. We were young and soaked and pretty broke, eating food that just tastes like your own nervousness. Together but alone, and lonely. In a quiet, dim place full of empty tables.

It’s that rock-bottom feeling, and some new Chicagoan is working thru that feeling right now. I am here to tell her that there is magic and warmth and good things to come on the other side of it. Use your bravery, and your pluck. And stay.

This deadpan history does not even sincerely begin to scratch the tarnished and exquisite surface of the experience of life and its goings on here. I have seen some of the craziest things and people. I have been astonished with awe and cried the sweetest tears. Every day unravels and change comes at a pace that seems just right. The hours unspool back into wonder, and I can hardly believe that I have done so much growing in this place. I had my 28th birthday here. Very soon I celebrate 38. Very probably my 40th.

There is still much to see and do. More winters to live thru. More summers to celebrate. More history to learn.

More work, and love, and play. More of everything that matters.

Thank you, my City. You broke me to change me to save me.