City Girl

“I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one, but I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.” – Ogden Nash

I am a city girl. Over the course of three decades, the electricity of motion and a sense of pluck and grit turned me into an urban woman. I have lived in high-rise apartments, small flats above restaurants where the sound of mice in the walls was my sleep cadence, rented tiny rooms in the back of bungalows, and lived where screaming landlords pounded the ceiling below me with a broom every time one of my babies cried.  I have carried furniture up and down fire escapes and jammed Electrical company spools into tiny stair wells in order to have a dining room table.  Cursing cab drivers and metal against metal shrieks from the elevated trains have formed sounds that became my constant city companions.

My first home in Chicago was a studio apartment on Sheridan Avenue.  I was a college student at the Art Institute of Chicago and they did not have dorms.  My parents helped me pick out a 220 square foot studio apartment on the 11th floor of a building, and with my one room that had a twin bed turned sideways to double as a sofa, I could look out at Lake Michigan.  My rent was $150.00 a month and I had saved enough to just cover this for the length of my first year’s lease.

I took dance lessons at Lou Conte’s before he started Hubbard Street Dance, his famous dance troupe. I was young and determined and the only time I got in trouble, was when I practiced tap dancing one night in my apartment.

The twelve foot wide by ten foot high wall of windows facing the lake and the night-time blackness beyond the glass, made me think of a future stage on which I imagined my life.  Wearing pajama pants and a thin t-shirt I strapped on my black patent leather tap shoes, wrapping the ribbon ties around my ankles.  I could see myself against the dark glass as though looking in an enormous mirror and I bowed grandly before launching into a shuffle-shuffle-stamp-brush routine, clattering away on the tile-over-concrete apartment floor. Five minutes later the building manager called.  I arranged to practice my dancing in the parking garage downstairs after that.

Years later, when I had children, my little girls would look through my dance bag and try on my worn-to-shreds dance shoes and long stretched-out leggings and old ratty leotards and ask me to tell them the stories of my past dance life.  Even now the girls talk about the “red bag with Mom’s dance stuff” and they smile at their discovery of the past life of their “Mommy.”

I was at home in Chicago and navigated it well, whether by “L”, bus, or car it didn’t matter to me.  I could park in a flash in the tightest of spots, and knew all the stops for the Blue Line and Green Line. I carried big canvases back and forth to my classes and I sketched everything I saw.  I was never afraid no matter how late at night I returned to my apartment, and the lit back alley-ways were shortcuts rather than scary places.  I loved the hum and energy of constant traffic and the endless variety of people to watch, and the chatter of sound was rich and even elegant to me.  The white noise of the city became harder to decipher the longer I lived there.  I would be surprised when friends would come in to the city to visit and comment on the barrage of sounds that I could no longer hear.  The background hum of life being lived in small manageable bits and pieces of geography, where six inch wide walls divided worlds but didn’t muffle sounds never bothered me.  Also, music was ever present with street vendors drumming on metal garbage lids and somewhere old Dean Martin and Sinatra tunes were being sung acapello by a harmony of strangers. In nice weather conversations could be heard walking past any restaurant where doors and windows would be sprung open wide.

I saw the city as a landscape of bright colors of purple and red and green and tangerine lit from within.  Rather than walk, I marched everywhere I went and I fit right in.  Brisk walking, energetic talking, argumentative coffee conversations under the lions at the steps to the Art Institute filled me with endless hours of joy.  On Friday nights I waitressed at Chef Alberto’s, the only waitress among a sea of waiters dressed in black and white tuxedos. They all knew how to bone a Dover sole, and so they taught me as I was the female mascot amongst the heavily accented Italian men. Listening to them shout to the cook in a language I did not know, while brandishing large knives for punctuation, did not frighten me.  I felt awakened from suburban dormancy and these experiences were mere kindling lighting me up. 

In the city I had to find little places to “nestle in.” Places where I could wedge myself onto a bench or in a booth in a tiny little diner amidst the cacophony of sounds and sip hot coffee, sketch, take notes or just think.  Discovering and honing my ability to be alone and happy in the midst of chaos was to become a great and mighty tool as I grew up to be the mother of four loud and boisterous daughters.  I had favorite spots and one was the Palmer House hotel on Wabash, which had a tiny coffee shop where they would let me sit for 2 hours in the early morning from 6:00 until 8:00 a.m. and pay for just one cup of coffee with constant refills.  I would sketch people as they came in and sat at the counter and I got to know bankers and construction workers and diamond salesmen and secretaries in pencil skirts.  I was the house artist and I went there every day.  At lunch time I would go with other art students to different little shops where we would pool our change and buy a pomegranate and cheese and share our meager food and talk about our future as artists.  The rows and rows of little shops under the elevated trains made me happy as I knew each one and would pop in to say hi to Tamara who worked at the wig shop where she would tell me about the famous people who wore her wigs.  I would sit and listen, sketching her as she continuously changed into different wigs; long red tresses, punk white staccato stabs of hair that were a little scary, and blond Monroe-like wigs that required she change her make-up to include black winged eye-liner.  I never knew what she would look like from day to day.  She changed wigs like underwear, every single day. 

The popcorn shop’s caramel corn was so popular that the line always went out the door.  Doormen from the area hotels, in their tall hats, would stand in line next to the wholesale diamond vendors, waiting to get their afternoon popcorn treats.  I would get a small bag for free because I knew the shop owner who would get coffee at the Palmer House each day and see me sketching.  I never had to ask and we never spoke.  She would just reach across the counter and give me a small bag and wink.  I felt like a famous person and it would no sooner have occurred to me to move away from Chicago as to poke myself in the eye. 

Little by little, over the course of two decades, everyone I knew began to be tempted by the allure of wide open spaces, less noise, less traffic and stars that could be seen by merely looking up after the sun went down.  My friends who fled the city hated coming to visit me, and even my family complained.  Driving into Chicago meant traffic and strange parking instructions like, “Honey, don’t forget to park on the second street to the right after the stop sign that is the third one before the “L” tracks.  Don’t park on the right side if you get here after 7:00 pm or you will be towed.  If you park on the left side of the street that is fine, but you will have to move your car at 8:30 pm or you will be towed.  If you turn left at the tracks, you will be towed since that is not really a street but an alley, and if you park on the fourth street after the third stop sign you will be towed if you park anywhere.”  Several times friends were to arrive at 8:00 in the evening and at 10:00 p.m. would call unable to find parking. “We’re leaving this God forsaken place,” They’d say. I had to go everywhere since no one would come to me.

Country life scared me. The transition had been partially paved for me though. My sister Jenny moved to the country when she was pregnant with her third child.  She was a city girl too, and took to the country life eventually, but it was a hard transition.  She went at it ferociously and decided that step one would be to learn to camp.  She and her husband were best friends with a couple who were professional campers.  They were the kind of people who have matching camping plates and matching camping mugs and pack everything by day and meal and actually know how to set up a tent.  They were calm and confident and this intimidated Jenny.  My sister was a city girl earnest to become a country girl so she packed for their first camping trip by stuffing all the necessary items into a large cylindrical duffel bag five minutes before it was time to leave.  Rather than cook anything days before the weekend trip, she grabbed what she could find from her cabinets and that is how Jenny and her family came to eat Hamburger Helper without any hamburger, while their friends had home-made goulash with large chunks of beef swimming in a warm and hearty gravy full of potatoes with skins on and fresh green beans from the garden with carrots harvested the day before.

Jenny’s tent flooded and almost floated away during the night-time rain storm and in the morning when Jenny’s professional camping friends came by to see if they were all right, they each held in their hands a steaming cup of coffee in matching mugs and wore hearty warm boots that water couldn’t penetrate.  Since Jenny was comforting sobbing children and wringing out clothes that were at the bottom of the duffel bag that was now filled with water, it was a while before Jenny would speak to them after this first trip. 

Listening to Jenny’s escapades of country life made me examine how I felt about leaving concrete for mud and exchanging shopping on Michigan Avenue for the Farm and Fleet experience.  I wondered if I could transition from heeled clip clip walking to ambled strolls across fields and if I would miss dining out.

I sat at our kitchen table in our little house in the city and told Andy that I was not sure I could do it.  I love this man and I knew he wanted to move to Montana.  I also knew that moving to Woodstock was a compromise that made him happy.  He felt magnanimous and generous of soul and he loved me.  So telling him at our tiny kitchen table, with city sounds outside the open windows that I was scared and didn’t think I could move out of Chicago, I looked up into his eyes as I said it.  He looked straight at me and never shifted his gaze, but his chin made the smallest of movements and he was silent for the smallest of moments and he said, “OK babe.  We don’t have to.”  That is when I made my decision to move to Woodstock where I became Andy’s pioneer woman. 

One Response to “City Girl

  • Your words paint a beautiful picture, maida! A picture that makes my heart ache for Chicago <3

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: