It was July and my husband Tom and I had just arrived in Chicago for our honeymoon. We’re from Ames, Iowa, which is a pretty little city in Iowa. I’d never been to Chicago but my husband had, twice, both for business and he had to stay in a hotel out near O’Hare airport. So while he had technically been to Chicago before, he hadn’t really experience the city in all its fullness. And what an amazing city Chicago is!
After we picked up our baggage at O’Hare, we decided to get the local experience and instead of a taxi into the city, we opted to take the El train. We got off the train at the Monroe blue line stop, which even though the El stands for “elevated train,” this train was actually underground for most of our trip into downtown.
When we got off the train, my husband said “we should figure out which way we’re going before we exit the station so we don’t look like tourists.” I said “well we’re still going to look like tourists down here and this train station seems dark and dangerous” but he had just gotten an alert on his phone that a storm was coming and who wants to be lost in a rain storm with all this luggage?
He tried to pull up a map on his iPhone but the internet connection was poor underground. Luckily for us, a dapperly-dressed man approached us and offered help.
“You folks look lost, can I help you find what you’re looking for?”
My husband tried to ignore him but he was a nice looking man and had fancy clothes and I wasn’t about to spend my honeymoon underground at the Monroe blue line station.
“Yes, actually, we’re trying to get to the Palmer House hotel.”
“Oh you’re very close in fact. It’s just a few blocks from here. It just so happens that I’m headed that way, would you like to join me?”
My husband looked at the man suspiciously. “Honey…” he said in a hushed but stern voice. If we were in a movie, they would have the camera in such a way that it was understood that only I could hear him, but in reality, the man could hear my husband. Despite this, the man unfazed.
“Look this may be a big city, but the people here are friendly. I’m actually going to a board meeting for a local non-profit that helps underprivileged children learn to read better. We hold our monthly board meetings in the law office of one of the board members. Once we’re above ground, I can point you in the right direction to the Palmer House, which by the way has a very lovely little bar. I would say that it recalls the old-world feel of Chicago with tourists from around the world dressed elegantly and sipping on cocktails. Once you’re settled, I recommend getting a drink there.”
“Come on babe, he’s a nice man” I said. “Let’s just get to the hotel already.”
My husband begrudgingly conceded. Nobody wants to start a fight on the first day of their honeymoon.
“Great! Follow me!” the man said. “And let me help you with your bags” he said, picking up my two large suitcases and leading us to the escalator. The escalator was just wide enough for two people across and when we got on, there were two people standing three steps ahead of us. They were standing next to each other so as to block our path up the left side of the escalator. This phenomenon reminded me of the board game Parcheesi, but when I told my husband later, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “I guess.”
“Alright you faggots! Move the fuck out of the way! We’ve got some mother fucking guests in our beautiful city and they got places to go!” the man shouted at the people blocking our way.
The person on the left scowled and moved to the side so we could pass. “Do you have any big plans for your stay here? The theater perhaps? Chicago is a great theater town. Hey you fucking spic, we’re coming through, get the fuck out of the way or I’ll kill you!”
“Yes, actually, we have tickets to Steppenwolf on Thursday.”
“Oh, Steppenwolf is a great theater. A lot of people think of New York as the main theater city in the U.S., but Chicago is just as good if not better. Hey boy! Yeah you! White people coming through! Is this how you treat guests in your home? No!? Then kindly get the fuck out of the way because these people are guests in our beautiful city!”
“He’s very racist” my husband said to me. This time I don’t think our tour guide heard him because he was taking my bags through the gate at the top of the escalator. He had to lift them over the turnstile and this took quite a bit of effort on his part because even under normal circumstances I do not pack lightly and even less so on this trip because I wanted to have options for all the various scenarios that might come up on our honeymoon.
The man waited for us to get through the turnstile and said “you see, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Chicago’s a big city, but the people here are quite friendly. We’re almost out, just one more staircase and we’ll be on the street.”
We walked to the staircase and he continued to ask us about our trip. “Do you like comedy? Second City is a great place to see live comedy. They do sketch revues on their main stage and you can see fabulous actors just before they move on to Saturday Night Live or your favorite sitcoms. Sometimes they even have an improv set after the main sketch revue and often times there will be a famous alumni guest. And if you like art, then the Art Institute is a lovely place to get lost for an afternoon. The impressionist exhibit is my favorite, especially the Monet part. He paints these beautiful haystacks that have an immediate emotional impact on me—it’s really quite striking. And you’re from—“
“Right, Iowa, that’s perfect! You’ll never look at haystacks in the same way. Perhaps your trip to Chicago can give you new ways of looking at familiar objects in your life, so that you can appreciate your quotidian experiences in a more profound way. Some people say that this is the purpose of art, to bring deeper meaning to our daily lives by enriching the mundane and connecting us with something deeper, even universal. Hey what is this!? A fucking synagogue!? Who the fuck let these Jews on the train!? Jesus Christ, get the fuck out of the way you fucking kikes. My good Christian friends are here from Iowa and they don’t need to borrow any money so get the fuck out of here!”
When we got to the top of the staircase, we stood at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn. Chicago was so beautiful! The architecture! And the people—so vibrant! It felt like a place where things happened. Where people came to make something of themselves.
“Well here we are” said the man. “Just head down Monroe Street and you’ll see the entrance on the right. There’ll be a fancy bellhop and everything—you can’t miss it!”
We thanked our new friend and he left (he was running late for his board meeting for the non-profit that helps underprivileged children to read). “You see honey, there’s nothing to worry about! People in Chicago are really quite nice.”
“Well he certainly was helpful to us. But he said some really nasty things to the people on the escalator.”
“People are complicated, Tom. That’s just how big city folks are. You have to be more aggressive. It’s not like back home where things are quieter.”
“I guess” said my husband and the skies opened up with a torrential rain, a real Midwestern storm.
“We better get a cab” I said.
“It’s only a few blocks!” my husband protested but I was already halfway into the street hailing a taxi. The taxi pulled up in front of us but an old man with a fedora and a tailored grey suit stepped in front of me and opened the door. He was real old-world Chicago, I thought, and I imagined that I was in an Al Capone movie about the 20s in Chicago. “I may be a tourist but don’t think for a second that I don’t know how things work in the big city!”
“It’s my pleasure to help you get out of the rain. Here, let me get the door for you.”
“This is an adventure” I said, safely in the taxi.
“I need a nap” my husband said.
Three days later we went to the Art Institute. It was there, staring at Monet’s golden glowing haystacks that I had an epiphany—Chicago was where I belonged. It just fit me. My husband would never go for it though, his heart was in Ames.
Sometimes it felt like we were actors in a completely different movie. He complained a lot during the trip about the noise and the crowds and I don’t think he got half the jokes in the Second City show. Keegan Michael Key was the special guest at the improv set and I nudged my husband and said “that’s the guy from Key and Peele!”
“I guess” said my husband.
In that moment, standing there in front of those beautiful haystacks, lost in another world, I decided that I would divorce my husband and move to Chicago on my own, to live the life I really wanted. I’d have to wait an appropriate amount of time before ending the marriage of course. I didn’t want to make it look like I was doing it on a whim. I’d have to sow discontent and manufacture a series of gradually escalating disagreements between us so that the fissure in our relationship appeared to be developing organically, like we had just grown apart.
This would take two to three years, at which point we would have an all-out argument and I would, sensing a lull in the argument, stand quietly for a moment with my hand on our granite countertop, and say with a tear in my eye: “is this working Tom? I mean, is this really working?” But I put that thought aside for the moment because it was our honeymoon, the happiest week of my life, and gosh were those haystacks beautiful.