I vividly remember flying west to California for Christmas after my first semester at college, packing my cameras with the expectation of documenting all that was familiar and nostalgic. A professor of mine quenched my naive documentary excitement by informing me that it was too soon to search for sameness. He suggested instead I look for what had changed, and I discovered it wasn’t familiar buildings and storefronts that had morphed into something new, but the markers of childhood: our house, old friends, aging parents. A decade later, I find myself retracing my steps in reverse, flying from the east to the Midwest to revisit my collegiate stomping ground after a decade of absence. This time I hoped to find what, if anything, was still the same.
Nostalgia can be a fickle feeling, and resides at times where we least want or expect to find it: in old relationships, death certificates, terrible teenage music or childishly romantic books. Searching for nostalgia can become too easy in places like hometowns or childhood homes. Like sentimental memories, it’s there whether we look or not. I wondered instead about the states, cities and towns where we go away to school. How much do we come to miss that home-away-from-home? The places that act as convenient landing pads for the years before you grasp that life won’t turn out the way you thought it would, though moments of blunt truth glimmer at the edges of youthful narcissism and crafted sensibilities.
Nothing about Chicago, then or now, elicits in me even the slightest sense of nostalgic reminiscing. I remember ice-cold winds in winter, squinting at Lake Michigan pretending it was the warm Pacific Ocean, the desolate bus rides home after school and work, and buying coffee with cream in lieu of dinner. I can still hear the voice of some forgotten grandpa in-law telling my nineteen year old boyfriend, with his innocent blue eyes, wavy blonde hair and rosy cheeks, “after one winter you’ll leave that little girl and come running home.” I remember the cities hard racism, its north/south divide, and voting Obama for senate in my first election.
Ten years later, unsurprisingly, Chicago holds no claim on me. Street names sound vaguely familiar, but I can’t place them into any mental map. Blindly searching for addresses I couldn’t quite recall, my old buildings were familiar structures in a sea of change. As the addresses came back and the entryways elicited locked away memories, I could only cobble together bits and pieces of a time I don’t remember often. I can pick out new buildings in my old neighborhoods, but what they might have replaced is gone forever. My memories are dim, like alleys behind the buildings and the back staircases I’d long since forgotten. I see Chicago with fresh eyes, as a city stretched out upon a lakefront that cracked and froze in the winter like skin. Chicago is as I see it now.
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