Waking up at silly o’clock in a corporate hotel room (describable by the colour “beige”) on the 25thfloor of a Magnificent Mile high-rise in Chicago, I felt a genuine, good-spirited sense of excitement. It was a cocktail, I decided as I slipped in the few non-business rags I’d brought, made of ebullience at the idea of having the time to see the place I was in, and of sheer expectation for a day that, I decided, I was to pass by myself.
It might sound a tad egotistical, and perhaps even a bit socially awkward, but I was yearning for a day with me, and myself only, to deal with. I was savouring, as I rode the elevator to the lobby, the freedom of going left if it pleased me, or right if I fancied it. Latitude to go ahead to my heart’s content, or to stop where I wanted, without having to deal with social courtesies, embarrassed compromise or the inane chit-chat that are the stalwarts of when people with different personalities and interests are forced together by the bonds of a contract: I didn’t want Sunday ever to end.
I had one suggestion for the day, by the incredible Julie at Wish I Were Here: Andersonville, somewhere up in the long brush stroke of streets, railway lines and infrastructure that unravelled northbound from the Loop. So I set off, aiming casually northwards, free to go and to deviate only three blocks in, waylaid by an inconspicuous sign that read “Navy Pier”.
There is something, for me, in visiting what normally is a hive of activity at its quietest. Victoria Station at 4 AM. St. Peter’s square at 5 in the morning. Navy Pier at 6.30 AM on a Sunday. Bar for a couple of joggers and a truck patiently refilling a tour boat – a rather eerie sight, for there were no humans in sight to supervise the operation – I had the pier to myself, the only one to hear the lament of seagulls and the clinking of hoist ropes against flag poles: much to my surprise, a dozen rainbow flags flew in the wind, together with the Stars ‘n’ Stripes, the State and City banner, looking out to what felt very odd not to be able to call ‘sea’.
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My initial impression of Lincoln Park – wide avenues, condos with concierge and fitness centres, no one but the homeless on the street – fizzled and disappeared as soon as I started weaving in and out of the grid of smaller streets that led to the north. Whilst the larger arteriae drowned everything with their impersonality, the roads feeding them nourished me with their quiet floridity. I walked in the shade of a continuous canopy of trees, past homes in wood, stone or brick, flags dangling from poles and newspapers on the doormat. At times, the residential texture broke to reveal a commercial high street, where Starbucks might be sitting shyly in a corner and individually-owned businesses took pride of place. Dry cleaners were out in force, an activity that – together with standing on the kerb dressed in Lycra, watching your French bulldog stare at another, identical, specimen held by a fellow Lycra-clad person – had to be North Chicago’s favourite past-time.
Pushing northwards through streets so quiet that I could hear my blood rumbling into my ears, I found entertainment in the all-American tradition of putting slogans on car number plates. Used to the impersonality of Europe’s ones, I’d always found this habit deeply fascinating, and today I could add a few more examples that I hadn’t, so far, seen before. “Land of Lincoln” was obviously out in force and, by the time I read it 30 times, I began finding it quite reductive for Illinois which, in the 150-or-so years between then and now, must’ve produced somebody else worth being proud about. I giggled at the mild bitterness of DC’s “Taxation without representation”and felt a sudden urge to hug the owner of the car that read “America’s dairyland”. You cannot claim to have a heart and not feel for Wisconsin, who must’ve thought long and hard about what defined it and couldn’t come up with anything better than the liquid squirted out of a cow’s udder.
It was by then 10:30, and I was still halfway to Andersonville. My plan had been to find a suitable café on the main road, where to have breakfast and multiple cups of coffee, perhaps a place where they’d call it “joe”, but the progress so far suggested I might be late for it. Faced with what looked like failure, I did what anyone would’ve done. I cheated.
The Red line of the L delivered me in 10 minutes of air-conditioned bliss into a rectangle of neatly ordered streets – is there a bendy one in the whole of Chicago? – oozing Scottish heritage: Argyle, Balmoral, a whisky shop. Yet, the atmosphere was unequivocally American. As I set off for a first round of sight-seeing it occurred to me that Andersonville fitted, for me, with the blueprint of any small-town American town I’d ever imagined. There was a high street with restaurants, stores, a bookshop and a couple of bars and, around it, beautiful wooden homes hidden beneath verdant trees. This is how I imagined Stephen King’s towns to be looking like in It or The Dark Half. The resemblance with the grainy footage of the moonwalkers’ birthplaces, in the Apollo documentaries, was also striking. I half-expected to bump into Charlie Duke loading his truck with paper bags from the shop. Andersonville was the kind of place where men and women smiled at complete strangers and asked how they were doing, and where those who sat on public benches read books and drank lattes, not smoked crack. After a couple of rounds, I settled on a café, where I was accommodated by the window, the breakfast menu included roasted potatoes and steak & eggs and coffee refills were as forthcoming as fresh Prosecco chalices at a Putney bottomless brunch.
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Yet, there was something very different from the standard all-American small town feel in Andersonville. It wasn’t the Swedish heritage that painted the old water tower blue and gold; I had an initial inkling when, walking along a residential street, it occurred to me that every house displayed, on the porch, American and rainbow buntings, and signs on the lawns proclaiming that hate didn’t live there in half-a-dozen languages.
But the real wake-up occurred as I stopped by a set of traffic lights, on the way to the café I’d chosen for my morning bacchanal. A duo of short-haired ladies pulled up beside me on a baby-blue Harley, a monster that they rode bare-headed, wearing Levi’s, shades and the sort of leather gilets that the Hell’s Angels prototyped in the 1960s. Music blared out of a hidden speaker, a cheeky guitar riff I’d heard it before. I had to ask.
“Sorry, isn’t that Electric Six?”
“Yeah baby!”the passenger bellowed as the driver put the dinosaur into gear and rumbled off. “Danger danger high voltage!” they laughed as they left. I grinned, both because I loved the brief conversation, didn’t mind the song and I finally understood it all.
Andersonville was the hotspot for Chicago’s gay community, a veritable Midwestern answer to Soho; I remember Julie mentioning this to me, and in fact it now made sense. In the café a moustached waiter, his chequered shirt closed only on the last two buttons, bounced along to Radio Gaga’s bassline whilst he took my order. The music then changed to I Feel Love by Bronski Beat, which for reasons unknown prompted me to think about Slavonski Brod, the Croatian border town, whilst more and more couples and families piled into the café to gorge on the great food.
I’d likened Andersonville to Soho, but in hindsight this was better. In Soho few – if any – could afford to live, and most came only to celebrate, and even that was in retreat, threatened by gentrification. Andersonville, instead, was a residential neighbourhood that offered an insight into the normality of a gay couple or family, away from the usual partying cliché. And it was also interestingly mixed: two straight families with toddlers ate at the centre table, an older couple, their son and his partner sat opposite me, whilst a man read a magazine behind my table dressed in a painter’s onesie with the nametag “Rusty”. A motorcade of Jeeps and bikes, all adorned with rainbow flags and modification of the Union banner on those lines, paraded down the main road, headed south, with jubilant cheers from everyone on the street.
“They’re heading down to Pride”offered the ‘stached waiter, before showing the parade’s route with a Sharpie on the Google Maps printout I’d used to guide me there. I, too, headed there. It was too early for the main event, but I was bang on time to witness the spectacle of half of Lincoln Park descending on the pavements, armed with deck chairs, fishing stools, even sofas, to claim a prime spot of real estate for the spectacle to come. Young and old, gay and not, kids and octogenarians, all were reading themselves with the classic preparedness of the Americans: besides seats they had coolers of beer and soft drinks, hot dogs and ice-cream, whilst little Mexican ladies pushed carts filled with tamales. Children played and ran, adults danced and downed pints, glitter and sweat gleamed under the sun. Even the most truculent CPD officer had a smile on his face. A small plane buzzed overhead, trailing an advert.
Penned in a square delimited by CPD blue barriers, and guarded by a posse of beefy cops, a scant group of fundamentalist in baggy trousers and long-sleeved jerseys, hunting caps rolled backwards to protect their sun-burnt necks, shouted homophobe slogans to no one in particular. I watched a man with Fu Manchu moustache wave a sign to criminalise sodomy, whilst everyone ignored them. Everyone but for a party of drag queens, one of whom held a cartoon of Jeff Sessions in S&M outfit in a hand and a sow on the leash on the other, who started blowing kisses to Fu Manchu and his congregation. The homophobes went ballistic, going redder and redder, whilst the bearded cop next to me tried his best not to laugh. Our eyes met and we both grinned. It wasn’t, for a change, a bad day to be in America.