By Anna Bruner
To the first place in Chicago to make me feel at home
Our windows were always open because there was no air conditioning. A single ceiling fan in the living room crept at a snail’s pace, stirring the air as slowly as if it were pancake batter, while the sun setting over the house across the street painted our walls orange. The ice cream truck would come at four, but we would hear it until six. And then it would come again at eight, it’s mechanical melody warping the cantina and rap music blasted by our neighbors every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night. Everyone sat out on their small cement porches close to the sidewalk, or their obscured wooden decks overlooking Jardín de las Mariposas -- the Butterfly Garden -- or languished in the heat of their living room on white pleather couches, too stoned to change the channel. Children rode their bikes until 10 o’clock at night, a few blocks from the Pilsen bar where a man’s throat was slit only a couple weeks before. Overall, it was a safe neighborhood, even in the record-breaking heat of August.
Everything smells like fresh asphalt still staining your tennis shoes black, pesticide, fresh tamales, sunscreen, and cherry slushies. Everything is sticky and covered in swarms of ladybugs: the curb, the ivy, the murals. The bus depot painted over the Virgin of Guadalupe mural a month ago, and now it’s just white. Kind of a trend in this neighborhood.
Grandmas line the streets with their colorful yard sales of plastic jewelry, VHS, and porcelain knick knacks (kittens, geishas, colorful fruits), as our grey cat lies in the sun on the sidewalk for hours, accepting tummy rubs from strangers. Somebody got their car radio stolen last week, so the blue security lights turn on every night and everything glows until four in the morning. We sleep with the windows open and our mattress in the living room. Our potted plants cast long spidery shadows over the floor. We’re too tired to feel the mosquitos anymore.
Indian summer settles over the streetlights and the tops of trees, turning everything gold. The milkweed along the old railroad track sheds and puffs of it travel on the wind like snow. Lines of elementary school children in bright colored coats and hats march to school behind their mothers, their older brothers all smoking cigarettes behind the closed barber shop. Steam from the bakery rolls over the street like smoke, filling the air with the smell of warm bread and wet leaves. Hundreds of monarchs fill the butterfly garden, migrating a week later. A boys and girls’ club comes after school to paint the pavilion in the garden bright blue. Someone that night writes “A+A Forever” in black sharpie on the third step.
Another smoke shop opens. Another fight breaks out with the neighbors, leading us to stay up all night watching documentaries about Catholic saints. Halloween brings hundreds of college students to house parties, caking the sidewalk in leaves, candy wrappers and broken bottles. Another street is torn up, blocked off with a “Building a New Chicago” sign, then sits idly unpaved for a month. Someone spray paints next to it, “Where is it, Rahm?” Our heating kicks in. We bring the cat inside.
The front steps, iron and painted the same blue as the butterfly garden gazebo, are the first to freeze over. Then the sidewalk, then the street. When snow falls, it will clear faster on the sidewalk from the shuffling of boots to and from the bus stop each morning, but it will build up in the street overnight. Snow plows don’t come here. While you wait for the 18th bus, you will have to time it perfectly so you don’t end up waiting for 25 minutes, frostbitten to your core, trembling as you try desperately to smoke a cigarette. You hide behind the boarded up butcher shop to shield yourself from the wind.
Christmas lights go up. Christmas tree lots pop up around taco stands. We are the only menorah on the block, but we blend in with the advent wreaths flickering in every living room. Everything is covered in ice and candlelight, the night sky is bright yellow, clouds reflecting the city we never see while we’re on break. Secluded, we build snowmen in the butterfly garden, walk to Rosie’s in La Villita to get donuts and empanadas, hot chocolates, and horchata on Sunday mornings. Isolated from the train, with no one trekking out for house parties in February, we stay in watching German films with the electric blanket, getting stoned until we begin to thaw, saints candles flickering on the bookshelf.
As the ice around the thin tree branches gets clearer and clearer, the sound of melting drops against the sidewalk sometimes sounding like rain, children start playing outside again. We filter through pages of Diane Di Prima and Patti Smith in the rare bookstore. Cigarettes are no longer smoked in a hurry, walks to the bar or to the train or to the stockyards or the deli are always enjoyed. The sun shines in an impossibly crisp blue sky, light bouncing from the graffitied white walls emblazoned with the word “Hustle” along the corner of the convenience store down the street. Colorful bulbs left over from Christmas still swing in the tree branches, their thin branches starting to burst with red and green fuzzy buds.
House parties resume, revived with the angst of midterms and the ecstasy of spring break. Our friends smoke in the butterfly garden and climb the trees, and we all sit on the rooftop playing music and talking about “next year” all night long. Another smoke shop opens. Another street closes. The family next door has another baby, and there are showers and parties every day with pink balloons and mariachi music and the smell of burgers and kabobs on the grill. Flowers sit out on the porches in barrels, pots, and hanging baskets by the dozen. We buy more plants from the community garden and scatter them about the apartment. We get another fake leather couch, and a record player, this time from a store and not an alleyway. The margarita bar opens its patio once again, and every weekday evening clusters of thin angry-looking art students gather over large neon drinks.
The cat goes outside again. The ice cream truck comes back.