Thursday, June 23, 2011

60707 ("My Kind of Town" contest)

Several friends have requested the posting of my third-place CWA contest essay.  The theme was "My Kind of Town."  Here it is...

“Are you from Elmwood Park?”
“No.  I’m from Chicago.”

    This was my youthful response to many years of the same residential question.  Growing up on the last O blocks on the city limits, I never swayed from my obstinate declaration that I was, and always had been, a city girl.  In all practical terms, those words were technically accurate, but there were many winters when I wondered if my city, too, had thought I was from Elmwood Park, having never seen a plow and witnessing my four brothers and father breaking backs and spirits on the mounds of powder and slush and frozen patches that paralyzed my neighbors during vicious months of blistering temperatures, dangerous ice, howling winds, and that never-ending drifting snow.  The cars would spin and bounce down our street; near miss collisions and fender bender parking were a daily occurrence.  But we participated in the infamous city-living spectacle, which put the rubber stamp on our true address... we placed lawn chairs on the street, marking Dad’s spot for the family station wagon when he went to work.
    The residential question paused briefly when the area codes changed.  Elmwood Park became the 708 area, while we city folk maintained our 312 status.  There was no denying where I was from.  The line in the sand had been drawn.  If I had a 312 phone number, well then, I was definitely from Chicago, and I took pride in that fact.  I didn’t want to be a suburbanite.  I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but a working class girl.  That’s what I thought Chicago was because my parents grew up in the city with their working-class families.  I heard glorious stories about “the old neighborhood” (not understanding, of course, that all the “old” places - homes, schools, hangouts, etc.- had been long gone, torn down or fully dilapidated beyond recognition of their memories).  I wanted to live in their city forever.  After all, Chicago was a nostalgic place and an exciting place, too.  Sure I went to school in a suburb each day, and I went to church in a suburb each Sunday, but didn’t the real fun happen in the city?  Field trips to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium... they were in Chicago.  MY Chicago.  Even when I attended college in a suburb, we always looked forward to Schubas or the Green Mill, the Wild Hare or the Empty Bottle (depending on our musical whims.)  The city was alive all the time... it never slept; it kept rolling on and on without stops.  I admired that energy, and every time I picked up the phone to dial a 708 friend, I was reminded of where I lived, in a city unlike their town or village.  So when the area codes changed a second time, when the 312s got split, and we became a 773, we were still Chicago... maybe not the historic city, not the downtown city or lakefront city or ethnic city or inner-city, but still “city.” 
    Then the big blow came.  The dreaded zip code frenzy. 
    Our phone number started with 773, not 708.  Our address was listed on an “O” street, not a numbered one.  Our city was listed as “Chicago."  We were NOT listed in the meager suburban directory, but in the mega book of the city directory.  So why, why, did my fine Chicago abandon us?  “Big Tony” was our alderman; we had massive block parties that sometimes got a bit out of hand; we walked to our local dollhouse-sized branch of the Chicago Public Library system; we biked to Hiawatha and Shabbona parks; we took the bus to Cubs games.  Heck, Mom took the bus to her job as a deli worker every day, too.  We were Chicagoans!  Why did we get pushed on to the Elmwood Park zip code?  Couldn’t they handle just a few more blocks of 606s?  All of my city friends had a 606 beginning... 60634 or 60635.  But I was being forced to concede to the dreaded suburban 60707.  The boundaries were announced, and our little square of 16 blocks (eight streets with two blocks each), would have to take a big gulp, swallow our pride, give in to the woeful zip.  That dreaded suburban zip.
    My parents are still there, in our humble home of city living.  Mom still takes the bus when she needs to, and Dad still shovels out the street, but his car is parked there most of the time now, so no need for lawn chairs.  During the warmer months, those chairs are on the front porch where they sit and look out at the new neighbors and new generation of children who head west toward our old suburban Catholic school.  They’re still Chicagoans with a 773 area code, living on an “O” block, with a city address and an Elmwood Park zip.
    And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that zip code confusion, it’s this:  no matter where I place my head at night; no matter where I travel or work or raise my kids; no matter my phone number or full address... whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I still say I’m from Chicago.  I guess it’s just my kind of town.