I don’t know what it is about this place. That thing that makes everybody fall in love with it, unconditionally. That thing that makes bright-eyed kids like me move 700 miles away from home to try to find their muse here and that thing that makes similar bright-eyed kids like my best friend from home try to summer sublet in the city he has no connection to whatsoever to find whatever the hell it is he’s looking for and can’t seem to find in the Pennsylvania coal mines and corn fields back east.
You can always spot a tourist in a city because the tourists are the only people who look up when they walk. Not up as in eye level, although it’s also true most city-walkers walk with their heads down, I mean up up. A thousand feet up in the air, up. Tops of buildings scraping the sky, up. Those who live here are all used to it, don’t need to affirm that, goddamn, that building really is the tallest in the entire goddamn country, and that two more in the top five are scattered somewhere around this grid, to boot.
It ain’t just the tall buildings, though. Every city’s got tall buildings. Washington doesn’t, but it doesn’t count, it’s got a height restriction. Only city in the country that has one, I think, but it still feels the same, people still keep their heads down when they walk (although, without the tall buildings, what would there be to look at, a thousand feet up?)
When I was young, I used to think it was the dirty past that drew people in, the allure of the gritty underbelly that seemed so enticing to a six year old from suburbia. This city’s got one of the most storied pasts in the country — my grandpa lived in the western suburbs and would tell me stories about the old mayor and then the old mayor’s son that would curdle your blood, make your heart feel like it was pumping oatmeal instead. I thought I wanted that. I thought you couldn’t ever be tough, couldn’t ever live a life’s worth of experience without the mean streets.
I remember having these thoughts at Baltimore Orioles baseball games, less than a mile from some of the seediest crack dens in the country, a stone’s throw away from the port where something like 30% of the nation’s cocaine enters the country. I remember going to Philadelphia Philles games in June, waiting for my birthday in July so we could go visit my grandpa back out west, as the fans around me back east in Veterans Stadium threw beer cans at the man dressed up in a Santa suit. I remember not being allowed to go on my school field trips to Pittsburgh because my parents thought the city was too dangerous for a schoolboy and his chaperone, but Al Capone never smuggled anything through Pittsburgh, did he?
There’s grime everywhere, if you know where to look. And it’s not endearing, like I used to think, it’s repulsive. It’s all the worst parts of humanity manifested, and this city’s all the worst parts of the country run amok for 150 years, but it gets inside of you, gets under your skin, like the hanging meat hooks in the stock yards and the junkies on west Garfield.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m just a tourist here, as much as I like to pretend I’m not. I still look up when I’m downtown. Goddamn, the Sears Tower reallyis the tallest building in the country, ripping the very stars out of the night sky, and you will never catch me calling it Willis. Corruption stories still make me smile instead of shudder. I still have a home to go to for the major holidays. I’m getting an abridged version of the city. And when my four years are up I can pack up my apartment and go anywhere I could ever want to go. The world will be at my fingertips. I love this city, but eventually, I will leave, and there will always be others who will not be able to.
And if I ever let myself forget that, if I ever let myself buy into the allure, the sparkling marquees and the major league baseball and the Pulitzer prizes, if my eyes ever gloss over and stay looking down, then I have lost, and the city’s won.