Esther Bergdahl is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She's written about the real-life Iron Man, heavy metal folk singers, and careers in drinking wine on camera. Her work has appeared in Mental Floss, the Chicago RedEye, and Mic.
I didn’t feel at home in my new city until I became a tourist in my old one—and brought back the souvenirs to prove it.
I had packed light for a week in Chicago, and fully intended to hop back to LaGuardia with equally light carry-ons. But instead of a slim backpack and a small roll-on, I struggled through two public transit systems in two time zones with a distended backpack and a markedly heavier roll-on I had to sit on to close. I also juggled an ungainly cardboard poster tube and a concert-sized resonator ukulele in a soft bag with a wonky zipper.
I lived in Chicago for most of the 12 years between college orientation and fall 2014, when I moved to Brooklyn for a job. Coming to Chicago from my hometown in Appalachian Ohio, I worried I’d never hear quiet again in such a big city. I worried that I would hate its flatness. Instead, I found that the winters gave me bragging rights, and that they were worth it for the glory of the summers. I learned how to find my people and my haunts. I learned who I could be, and part of that is learning when to try something new.
But I wasn’t going to let the East Coast change me: I arrived at my new apartment with a “Midwest Is Best” t-shirt, mugs from favorite local institutions, and gig posters from beloved venues.
Then I stayed away from Chicago. For almost a year and a half, I couldn’t bear the idea of going back to the place I loved so much. When I finally decorated my apartment, only one small art print of the Merchandise Mart made it onto my walls. I thought if I kept too many visuals of Chicago in plain sight, I’d regret leaving.
Your old home doesn’t disappear that easily, of course. Coney Island was neat, but I missed Lake Michigan. I couldn’t find the right burger, the right beer, the right pizza. At MoMA and the Met, I mourned my lapsed Art Institute membership. Even when my beloved Improvised Shakespeare Company played in Manhattan, their shows were twice as expensive and half the length.
Going cold turkey on Chicago wasn’t working. Moving back wasn’t in the works, either. But I finally let myself visit last month. Even the distant glimpse of the Sears (yes, Sears) Tower from the O’Hare tarmac made me tear up. Being in my city—where the announcements on the trains sounded right and where the owner of my regular Chinese restaurant hugged me tight when I walked back through the door—was so restorative. Still, a fundamental problem remained: I paid rent in New York now. I had to leave once my week was up.
The solution was half ingenuity, half hoarding instinct. In the grand tradition of Supermarket Sweep, I filled my cart. If it had a Chicago flag on it, a Chicago neighborhood, the municipal symbol, a local logo, I bought it. I bought laser-cut wood stud earrings with red six-pointed stars. I bought magnets with my old area code (773!) and Brown Line stop (Damen!) on them. I bought a flag patch to sew over the Brooklyn Industries label on my shoulder bag. I bought pins declaring “I’d rather be in Chicago!” I glumly resisted oversized vintage map reprints, handmade Chicago flag cutting boards, WPA-style posters of tourist traps. I bought too many books at my favorite independent bookstores and comic shops, and I kept the bags, the receipts, the bookmarks.
My Chicago is a limited, privileged, and gentrified one. I know it’s a complicated place, as is its local pride. Still, this seems constant: Chicagoans love being from Chicago. They love it when they live there and they love it if they leave. When I wear my star stud earrings or my Half Acre t-shirt or my delicate brass flag necklace anywhere else, I’m waiting for another Chicago person to close out a secret handshake. You can get a mass-printed canvas of the Empire State Building just about anywhere. I don’t know New Yorkers who wear New York stuff. Chicago has a widely adopted visual language, but Chicagoans are the ones interpreting it. Residents buy into the iconography. It’s still ours.
All the research says that we value experiences more than stuff. It’s the whole point of “And all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” Yet halfway through my visit, there I stood in front of a wall of instruments at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I’d been telling everyone, strangers and friends alike, all about how it was my first time back since I’d moved away, and how I wanted to do everything again. I wanted to know it was all still there. One employee smiled and gave me vinyl logo stickers. I couldn’t take my eye off this one ukulele.
It was mahogany, heftier and larger than my little beginner’s soprano. The body had a beautiful perforated metal plate on the bottom, with violin-like f-holes and inlaid abalone shining on the neck. It felt right in my hands. I’d bought my first ukulele because it could make anything, even Hamlet, sound happy. This one told a different story about me. There was a person I had wanted to be in Chicago, who made music and art and danced the Lindy hop and played on an improv team. A lot of that had fallen by the wayside by the time I came back as a guest. Small wonder I was so gun-shy about coming back.
Chicago opened up who I could be. You can move forward without leaving the things you love behind. The stuff isn’t the experience, and it isn’t self-knowledge. But it’s a good thing ukuleles are so portable. And in that sense, cities are, too.