Don’t you love the way that front wheel winked at my camera?
That’s my suitcase peeping out from the back. Along with Jim, who with his wife Jane are my couch surfing hosts for three nights in Chicago.
Chicago. I pulled in several hours late after the crowded train broke down in the night. It was a long night. A scrunched up in my own little seat night. A listen to Lady of the Rivers on audio, again, night. I never tire of that story.
‘Any woman who dares make her own destiny will always be in danger.’
That’s why women stay home. It’s why we play safe. It’s why the one thing more women are more curious about on my journey than any other is: ‘are you safe’?
To which the answer is always ‘of course’, because we all know we are referring to my physical being. The answer is also ‘never’, if a woman values her own life. But I learned a long time ago I had much more to lose by pleasing than pleasing myself.
In truth, surprisingly to me, I wasn’t sorry to be leaving Boston. I had always thought that one day, when I”m old with nothing left to do, I would come to Boston and study at one of the fine women’s colleges there, steep myself in the history of English literature and the best of American women’s leadership.
That was before I fell in love with New York City. Actually, that’s not true – it’s before I experienced the actuality of being in love with New York City.
Everything now is ordinary. Bland. ‘What for’? And the further I pull away from My Great City Love the sadder, less sure of my own world I become.
As the train and I trundle our way west, humming along underneath the Canadian border, literally in my case – The Night Chicago Died replacing Please Come To Boston in my head – I’m surprised to see there are no hills obliterating the sky. I had thought there would be mountains.
And then I see what ought to be the sea and realise must be a Great Lake.
The world around me is flat, ordinary and uninspired. Much like me.
We rattle on through the food bowl, past fields and factories, scattered silos and great paddocks of green and brown and yellow. And I realise this must be what is known politically and geographically as ‘middle America’.
I am shocked. It really is, seemingly, habitually humdrum; justifiably compared, the world over, to that culturally intolerable state of being known as’Wisconsin’.
The longest journey draws to a close as the train rolls into Chicago – and I am eyes-popplingly startled by the industrial corridor that rolls out from the train window to each horizon.
This is extraordinary industrial wilderness. What does it support? All the USA? It is black and grimy, full of brick buildings and wires and tracks and what on earth is behind all that apparent productivity?
I stare into empty backyards and streets of suburban Sunday Chicago as we close in on the city. Concrete houses butt up against factory walls. The streets are empty. The parks barren. Just as I realise no-one is playing on the pitches, fields and courts I see a bunch of adults and kids playing baseball.
I make my way through the quiet inner city streets from the AMTRAK train station to the local service. I marvel that no-one has thought to make a remote control suitcase following nicely at heel behind the overburdened like myself – and it’s okay to steal that idea, by the way, just let me test the prototype.
I sit in the cold empty station waiting for my train to Oak Park. A man offers me a joint. I shake my head, then ignore him. An hour later he gets on the same train and sits next to me. He introduces himself as Howard, I shake his hand. He offers to share his beer with me. I decline. He asks stupid invasive questions and I tell him sharply ‘no more’. He talks to me all the way to my stop, a man in a red shirt bemused, bewildered, befuddled by a woman who refuses to be polite. I ignore him completely. I do not acknowledge his presence. As I get off the train he tries to give me money.
I walk across the road to a bakery and coffee shop and drop my bags outside. A man makes a stupid comment about ‘taking my boyfriend for a walk’, referring to my suitcase. I laugh. He says ‘women always laugh when I say that.’
I say ‘that’s because it’s a stupid thing to say’.
As you can see, I’ve already had enough of the men in Chicago.
I order a watery, sugary chai from a pretty young dyke behind the counter. She smiles and chats with welcome-to-Chicago bonhomie. I tell her it’s a pleasure to find people who don’t harass you in Chicago.
‘Who!’ she demanded.
‘The man in the train for a start,’ I said.
‘Where is he?’ she asks, making for the door.
‘He went that way,’ I said, pointing down the line. ‘He’s wearing a red shirt.’
‘He’ll keep,’ she said.
And we laughed.
We laughed and laughed till Jim turned up in the black Corvette and I roared off into the Sunday quiet, leaving the man with the dumb boyfriend comment with his jaw on the ground.
Black Corvettes and blackened brick.
As I lie in Jim and Jane’s bottom bunk bed in their spare bedroom, I ponder the point of being here at all – and then I remember that I am planting seeds. What feels so rich and alive and full in New York City is my fertile garden bed. Nothing compares, that’s all.
Like Mary Mary quite contrary, I must wait for my garden to grow.