I am not a Chicagoan by birth, although I am a Great Lakes Upper Midwesterner. Born and reared in Milwaukee, roughly eighty miles north across the Illinois/Wisconsin state line, I moved to Chicago at the turn of the century after having spent the three previous decades living everywhere from New York City to Miami — if seldom for longer than a couple of years in succession — and, so it often has struck me, all points in-between. For reasons too tedious to enumerate, mine has been a gypsy/military brat existence. So that, their having become part of the tidal rhythm of my life, I ordinarily am unfazed by departures, good-byes, so longs, fare-thee-wells, sayanora’s and see ya’s. I typically do leave-takings standing on my head, and I needn’t qualify them, or console myself, with ‘until next time’ or ‘til we meet again.’ I remain too long in one place, I get…antsy. Nor am I partial to looking back — in anger or other ways.

Now, there are a number of time-honoured ways for denizens of the broad-shouldered city to take their leave of Chi-town, and while each may strike the non-resident as more dubious than the next, to a true Chicagoan — one, that is, who pronounces it ‘Chicawgwinn’ — they do not constitute reason enough to bestir the arching of a mildly interested eyebrow.

One, is to hightail it out of town, oftimes ‘riddled with bullets’ and bleeding, hotly pursued by the Law (or, alternatively, one’s fellow armed-and-dangerous, homicidally maniacal, professional hoodlums) for having committed a crime (or, alternatively, grave and unpardonable error in judgment) serious enough to merit such pursuit.

This is said to occur less often these days than it did in the past, but until I see the statistics, I’m not buying it.

Another, is to be escorted out of town by the Law, typically in handcuffs, less often in leg shackles, to a state prison or federal penitentiary. Al Capone, for example, was partial to this type of exit.

This is not said to occur less often these days than it did in the past, but until I see the statistics, I’m buying it.

Yet a third, is to depart the city at precisely the same moment that one departs the planet itself — pronounced ‘da ert’ — typically in a cement suit, pine box, or fifty-five-gallon drum, customarily after having been ‘struck down’, routinely in ‘a hail of gunfire’. John Dillinger, for instance, much-favoured the approach.

This is said to occur more often than it did in the past, but I don’t need to see statistics to know that this is so.

In my own case, I found myself flouting tradition. Which is to say that when, four months ago, I left the city, it was of my own volition. Not that I left eagerly, much less glady, but I did do so voluntarily, without a whiff of coercion or hint of violence.

I did not skedaddle or ‘blow town’ under cover of darkness. I was not chased or obliged to leave at the invitation of either local law enforcement or with the encouragement of neighbourhood thugs. There were no fisticuffs, handcuffs, bullets or blood. No one threatened me, or, if they did, the threat never reached my ears. There wasn’t even an exchange of verbal unpleasantries.

While living in the city, it is true that my son was stomped nearly comatose in an after-hours West Side skinhead bar — rushed to the hospital, it required three dozen stitches, staples, and sutures to sew his scalp back onto his bruised, bloody, twenty-three-year-old swollen hive of a noggin — but while my son stayed, I left altogether peacefully, and, as I say, of my own accord. If it was as melancholy a parting as I ever have experienced, it likewise was a strictly uneventful one.

On the other hand, if, at risk of cliché, Chicago can be said to be an existential state of Midwestern mind and heart and soul—tough mind, capacious heart, blue, bluesy soul — then perhaps I never left at all. Perhaps I am there still.

Despite its geographic proximity to my hometown, I had visited Chicago precisely once, prior to moving there, when, as a child, I was obliged to spend a long day shuttling interminably between the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science & Industry, and Field Museum of Natural History. At least my parents had the good sense not to subject a nine-year-old to a leisurely stroll through the Art Institute introducing him to the fathomless wonders of French Impression and Post-impressionism. At the time, those eighty miles might as well have been 8000; Chicago was and remained terra incognita. Nor, later, did it beckon.

But there arrived that moment in my early-fifties when, shed of every practical encumberance, I suddenly found myself footloose and free enough to live wherever I might choose to live. It is not an uninteresting proposition: where to pitch one’s tent when the world is one’s oyster. Where to put down stakes in preference to any other place, all other places, on the face of the earth. Or even, da ert.

I chose Chicago.

As I recall, it wasn’t owing to the winters, although having grown up accustomed to far worse than anything Chicago might contrive in that respect, it wasn’t in spite of them either.

In fact, while living on the East Coast, my work had taken me to Chicago on a series of research trips. With each visit, I found myself tumbling more hopelessly in love with the place. It wasn’t anything in particular that accounted for my unaccountable response. It was, rather, everything in particular. It will sound odd, but it was as if the city was calling me back, back to a place I never had lived in the first instance, a place with which I was long and intimately acquainted, without having spent any time there at all. Everything about it was strangely, yet instantly familiar, from the ‘union-made’ buff bricks of the bungalows and two-flats, to the block upon block of connected back-alleyways running along behind them, to the slant of the dawn’s early light breaking over Lake Michigan, to the dramatic volatility of the weather itself. The place even smelled right, smelled of hotdogs (Vienna Beef), popcorn (Garrett’s), and beer (Old Style). How to explain that sort of deja-vu-like, unbidden connection, that zonal comfort, other than with the word ‘love’? And how to resist its call?

I could sing the praises of this most livable of all the world’s world-class metropolises from now until forever. I could limn the variegated shades of its local colour and enumerate its several more — and, yes, less — charming parochial eccentricities. I could applaud its architecture, laud its civic and cultural spirit, speak at length about the guileless resolve, resilience, and raw-earnest affability of its residents, who are far too sophisticated ever to wear their sophistication upon their collective sleeve. I could even mention that, while I lived there, on an unseasonably mild, early November evening in 2008, one of its own, one of our own, was elected to the highest office in the land and that the entire beaming, celebratory city, myself included, turned out, pilgrim-like, at Grant Park, to partake in the making of History, before returning home to write the words that subsequently appeared in the city’s literary journal, named, appropriately enough, MAKE:

Watching Barack Obama,
thinking of John Brown, mouldering
150 years in his grave, up and antic
more alive this day, than ever in his own.

No man walks on water
but some few make history
which, sometimes, is no less miraculous.

Four months later, after having lived in Chicago longer than I had lived anywhere else in my adult life, I was gone. I couldn’t stay. I had seen what I had come to see, experienced what I had come to experience. It was time to go. My heart told me so. The way it beat. Antsy.

I left, but I took Chicago with me. I’ll always have it.

Dinaw Mengestu | Interview
Coming Night