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  • Katherine Dahl

Homesickness / City

I haven’t had much time to read lately, so I’ll be writing about something a little different this week. My recent thoughts have been mostly about Chicago itself, especially after having gone home for spring break. The city is bittersweet: glittering and dramatic, yet somehow alienating and melancholy at the other corner. I feel at once a vibrant soul among a colorful collection of others—people I never would have had the lucky opportunity to meet otherwise—and also a tiny, quivering black dot among thousands of other tiny, quivering black dots. There are few places you can be truly anonymous outside of a city. You walk down the street, barely glanced at. It’s only when you stand in the sidewalk to gawk at a particularly tall building here or a honking car there that you get that specific stare of an annoyed local; it’s only when you’re doing wrong, sticking out, that you become an object of scrutiny. Even besides just yourself, those other folks on the street are nameless objects moving too slow or blocking the path forward: objects you swerve around and shake your head at. You are a face easily forgotten or even left uncatalogued—and I haven’t quite decided how I feel about it. Coming from a small town where you bump into at least three neighbors you recognize at the grocery store (two of which are probably people your parents know and you wish you could avoid), the city can feel more like an invisibility cloak than a place to call home. 

In this way, it’s easy—terribly easy—to become swamped with homesickness. It’s easy to wish each bus, train, and walkway was “Homeward Bound.” In the song, the plague infects the subject through constant movement and an inability to settle where “each town looks the same.” The city, despite sitting unmoved, is dynamic enough in itself—between the jangling coin buckets, rattling train-cars, murmuring brook of voices, and even just the wind blowing between the alleyways—that it produces a similar effect of endless cycling and crawling and climbing. There’s rarely been a moment to sit. To settle. Instead, I flutter around and move back and forth until it’s time to sleep and then get up again to do it over. People form the landscape and concrete seals us in. I am just one of millions, like an ant in the world’s biggest hill, like a withered hand waving from behind the field of balcony lights and garbage cans and potholes. The city is alive in its own way, and sometimes I don’t like how narrowly it misses my cheek when it gnashes its teeth.

Yet, that same vitality is just what makes me glad to fit between those jaws. I have never been in a place so utterly human. I could stand in the street—getting dirty looks for being in the way, I’m sure—and marvel at how everything moves around me. Inside each of those honking cars and tall buildings is a person, ten people, hundreds of people. They are different from one another, perhaps they are the same; maybe they shop at the same grocery store, maybe they take the same blue line train home everyday. Maybe they went to the same high school, maybe they came here from the same country outside of the USA. But, they live in the same city regardless. They argue with their mother on the phone—in English, Spanish, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Hindi, Arabic, or countless others—they walk their dog and laugh when it wags its tail, they scoff at the price of a hot-dog. They look at the sky, the street, the cabs, the store-signs, the traffic lights, the restaurant menus, the stickers glued to a lamppost, and even sometimes at me. The city is human, living and breathing. It rushes and tumbles, it trips over its own feet, it laughs and yells and curses, and because of that, it’s better than “My Little Town.” And that’s not just because of the cornfields at home.

So, yes, the city does make me homesick—sometimes so sick I feel physically ill, like one-more-police-siren-and-I’ll-puke ill—but it also makes me hopelessly spellbound. It’s beautiful in its own way, inexorably and immutably. These millions of tiny, quivering black dots are stippled into an artwork of people and a monster that may not be so monstrous after all.



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